He’s known as the “Jackie Robinson of hockey,” but to receive that honor, it cost Willie O’Ree the sight in his right eye, threats, racial slurs and fights.
O’ere is now 81 years old with his sharp mind still intact, he says he could do it all over again, he woudn’t change a thing.
“It was the media that gave me the name the Jackie Robinson of hockey,” said O’Ree. “It makes me feel good.”
What makes this story that much interesting is the fact that he didn’t tell anyone he had lost 95 percent of the vision in his right eye two years prior to joining the National Hockey League.
“I didn’t tell anyone that I couldn’t see,” said O’Ree. “My sister, Betty, and my good friend, another black player named Stan Maxwell, were the only ones who knew that I couldn’t see. I didn’t tell my mom and dad because I didn’t want them to worry.
“I didn’t let that stop me. Back then, they didn’t have physicals like the ones given today. I could still see out of my left eye. I wanted to play and I did what I had to do to compensate for the injury. After being injured, I came back and tried to play as if I had recovered.
“Being a left-handed shot and playing left wing to compensate, I had to turn my head all the way around to the right [and] look over my right shoulder to pick the puck up,” he recalled. “At first, I had a little trouble and I finally said, ‘Willie, forget about what you can’t see. Concentrate on what you can see.’ Once I started doing that, my game began to pick up.”
“To me, I didn’t know I was breaking the color barrier until the next morning when I read it in the paper,” said O’Ree. “When I stepped on the ice on Jan. 18, 1958, we were playing the Montreal Canadiens in Montreal. We beat the Canadiens 3-0, then we got on the train and went to Boston. The Canadiens beat us 5-3 and then I left. I was just there for the two games.”
During the 1960-61 season, O’Ree got a second opportunity to play for the Bruins. He appeared in 43 games, collecting 14 points on four goals and 10 assists. He also logged 26 penalty minutes.
Cheap shots were the norm and O’Ree, despite his bad eye, watched out for them.
“I had to protect myself,” said O’Ree. “I knew there would people coming after me.”
O’Ree, who was at the Staples Center in Los Angeles to see Simmonds win the award, is aware of the changes in the sport.
“Hockey has opened up for everybody,” he said. “I can see more [black] players coming in. A lot has changed and that’s good. I was the first one and 16 years later, Mike Marson was the first [black] player drafted” by the Washington Capitals in 1974.
“I’m very proud of what [Simmonds] accomplished. He’s a great player and a great person. He’s an inspiration to others.”
With time, the NHL has realized that O’Ree’s contribution to the game is priceless.
“Willie O’Ree has devoted his life to our sport and our young people, to diversity and inclusion,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement. “His words of encouragement, and the life lessons he has taught, have inspired thousands not only to play hockey but to incorporate our game’s values and ideals into their lives. We marvel at Willie’s strength and his courage, at his willingness to blaze a trail for future generations of players, and we are honored by his continuing presence as a role model, mentor and ambassador for our sport.”
When he was 14, O’Ree played baseball and was pretty good. His team won a championship and as a reward, was treated to a trip to New York City. On the tour, he met Robinson.
“He had broken baseball’s color barrier only two years prior, in 1947 and to us he’s an icon. We went to Ebbets Field and watched a Dodgers game. We met him afterwards.
“When I get my chance to shake his hand, I said, ‘Nice to meet you, Mr. Robinson,’ I say, ‘I’m Willie O’Ree.’ Jackie Robinson says, ‘Nice to meet you, Willie,’ while shaking my hand.
“Then I said, ‘I’m a baseball player, but what I really love is hockey.’ He responded by saying with a smile, ‘Oh? I didn’t know black kids played hockey.’ I smiled back and said, ‘Yup!’ ”
The next time he met Robinson was at an NAACP luncheon in Los Angeles in 1962.
“I was 27 then and playing with the Los Angeles Blades,” O’Ree recalled. “I’m there with the coach and a few other players. My coach [George “Bus” Agar] noticed the guest of honor talking to some people. He waited a few minutes for their conversation to end and then he brought me over to meet him. He tapped him on the shoulder and said,
‘Mr. Robinson, I’d like you to meet one of our players, Willie O’Ree.’
“Jackie Robinson turned around, stared at me for a moment and said something I wasn’t expecting. ‘Willie O’Ree,’ he said while shaking my hand. ‘You’re the young fellow I met in Brooklyn.’ I was stunned, let me tell you. I would’ve never thought that the great Jackie Robinson would remember me out of all the people he had met.”