Black News — William Eldon “Willie” O’Bree, the first African-Canadian man to play in the National Hockey League, was inducted November 12 into the Hockey Hall of Fame, nearly six decades since he joined the league. Now 83 O’Bree was honored not just for his historical significance but also for his contributions in spearheading numerous youth programs across North America.
He is third black player to be inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The first two were Grant Fuhr, goalie for the Stanley Cup Champions Edmonton Oilers, and Angela James, captain of the Canadian Women’s National Team. The National Hockey League Hall of Fame is based in Toronto, Canada.
O’Bree made history when he began playing for the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958. He has been called the Jackie Robinson of the National Hockey League.
He was blind in his right eye after being hit by a puck, but he saw a chance to play with Bruins as an opportunity he had wanted all of his llife so he did not tell the team’s management. At the time, team’s did not give players physical like they do today.
He played 45 games in NHL. His career was mostly spent in the minor league. In his 24 seasons in professional hockey, he had to endure several offensive insults just because of the color of his skin.
In one incident, he had his teeth purposely knocked out by his opponent’s hockey stick. Another time, he had been yanked and attacked by a mob of hostile fans. He was often put on minor leagues, too. Despite that, he still loved the game and continued playing it.
“I heard that N-word so many times that I just let it go in one ear and out the other,” O’Ree told The New York Times. “I never fought because of racial slurs or remarks. I fought because guys speared me, butt-ended me, crosschecked me and things of that nature. Otherwise I would have spent every game in the penalty box.”
O’Ree persevered all those challenges and paved the way for other Black athletes who want to follow in his footsteps. After retiring from hockey, he also spent decades of working with young players across North America through different youth hockey and outreach programs.
“Willie O’Ree’s story must not be forgotten,” Karl Subban, a father of three Black NHL draft picks, told Sports Illustrated. “He has made it possible for my boys to have the NHL dream and to believe they could achieve it. He changed hockey which is now for everyone. Hockey needed him and so does the Hockey Hall of Fame. The time is right!”
O’Ree was born October 15, 1935, in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Fredericton was a coal-mining town with only to black families, according to his biography.
Frederick H. Lowe also contributed to this story.