Facing Adversity 52 Years After Breaking The Color Barriers

Willie O'Ree

January 18, 1958 marked the date of Willie O’Ree’s first appearance on ice with the Boston Bruins. As the first player to break the color barrier in the NHL he faces more adversity now then he did 52 years ago.

O’Ree grew up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where a rink has been built to name after him. There were only two black families on the block where he grew up and has said he had no idea what prejudice was before he began his journey with professional sports. “No one treated us any differently then the white kids,” he has said.

Although baseball and hockey were his main interests, O’Ree grew into a multi-sport athlete. In his last season of junior hockey he took a slap shot to the face leaving him to play sports with basically one good eye. Even with this slight disadvantage O’Ree was, at 20, skilled enough to earn an invite to the Milwaukee Braves’ 1956 camp in southern Georgia. Being housed separately from white players, this is where O’Ree was introduced to segregation and prejudice.

Arriving in the Atlanta airport O’Ree said the first thing he saw were restrooms marked “white only” and “colored only.” He stayed, but he almost immediately knew he regretted his decision to try baseball. One Sunday, making his only trip off of the training grounds, he went with other black players to attend Baptist services. After church the group wanted a drink and saw a drug store where there didn’t seem to be any visible signs that they would not be welcome. While inside the group was confronted by two white men using the N-word. They hurried away from this situation. Five days later the Braves told him that they thought he needed more seasoning. O’Ree couldn't have been happier to start his five-day journey home where he was told he had to go to the back of the bus. He has said as he got closer to home he was able to move up.

Wanting to stay in Fredericton, O’Ree was prepared to turn down a chance to play pro hockey with the Quebec Aces. The team’s manager talked him into going and the team ended up winning the league title. Spotting O’Ree, the Bruins gave him a chance to play two games in 1957-58. The big news was not his breaking of the color barrier, but that the Bruins had shut out the Habs 3-0 in the Montreal Forum.

He didn't return to the NHL from the minors until 1960-61. Difficulties began for him upon his return. Still being the leagues only black player he was said to have had a tough time in Chicago and endured racial slurs in Detroit.  The worst came in his first game in Chicago Stadium. O’Ree lost his two front teeth and lost a lot of blood from a split lip and nose as the result of taking the butt end of a stick from opponent Eric Nesterenko. With his stick he responded by clubbing Nesterenko over the head. Both benches emptied and the racial overtone could be heard from the stands as well as on the ice.

After being ejected from the game along with Nesterenko, O’Ree was stitched up, but unable to return to the bench. Although he wanted to be with his teammates his coach was too worried for his safety and had him stay in the dressing room where two policemen were posted at the door. This would mark Willie’s last season in the NHL. He played pro hockey through 1979 for the most part with the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League. Until 1974 the NHL did not have another black player.

Today his message, not about color, but about education and following your dreams is made all over the country to children through clinics and speeches. He has been hired by the NHL to work with the league’s diversity task force to help promote hockey to young black children and players of diverse ethnic backgrounds. He receives death threats through the mail concerning his work with the NHL. Although these threats are very serious and bone chilling O’Ree continues to move forward and is working to help change the face of the game.  

January 18, 2010 | E-mail | Comments (0) | Comment RSSRSS comment feed

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