Willie Eldon O’Ree was born October 15, 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick and is often considered to be the “Jackie Robinson” of professional Ice Hockey. O’Ree broke the color barrier in the predominantly white sport. Willie played wing for the Boston Bruins and presciently had met Jackie Robinson in his early years. Since New Brunswick is the Canadian province just north of Maine, they deal with brutally harsh winters filled with icy and snowy seasons. That may be bad for some but great for budding hockey players like Willie. He started skating when he was about 3 years old and a couple of years later he was playing organized hockey by the time he was 5. The O’Ree family did well enough to be able to afford the pricey equipment that is required for official hockey games.
Before long young Willie grew up playing in more and more competitive leagues specifically Canada’s Junior League. Many players in this league have gone on to successful professional careers in the NHL. It was about midway through his second minor-league season with the Quebec Aces when O’Ree was called up to the Boston Bruins of the NHL to replace an injured player. In an odd twist, Willie was 95% blind in his right eye after being hit by a rogue puck some years earlier. The severity was enough to have stopped him from playing had it been todays NHL but O’Ree was able to keep his injury secret. On January 18, 1958 Willie O’Ree made his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadians. Years later O’Ree had made a note that the racism he experienced as far as remarks from the crowd was far worse in the States than in the Canadian cities he played in. Although Willie’s career in the NHL was not that long playing just 45 games with 4 goals and 10 assists.
While in the minor leagues, Willie won two scoring titles in the WHL (Western Hockey League) between the years of 1961 and 1974 after his NHL days. He managed to score thirty or more goals four times with his high being 38 in two of the seasons. O’ree played the majority of his career with the Los Angeles Blades and the San Diego Sports Arena where he played until the age of 43 before the team retired his number. It would be another 16 years before another black player was active in the NHL (Canadian player Mike Marson) when he was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974. After professional hockey and working at a Hotel in San Diego, Willie was offered to be the director of the youth development for its diversity task force. The NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force is a non-profit program for minority youth that encourages the kids how to learn and play hockey together.