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Willie O’Ree and the History of Black Hockey Players

I’ve been a hockey fan practically all my life. My father’s love of sports drove him to watch every form of competitive sport. The one that stood out the most to me was hockey. At the time I thought it was a sport for whites. Over time I slowly began to see Black players here and far between. However, it wasn’t until years ago when I Googled Blacks in the NHL that I came across Willie O’Ree.

As a matter of fact, all I remember of the search results was a one-pager with the NHL logo and a few short paragraphs. It mentioned O’Ree and a handful of other Black players. O’Rees legacy has come a long way since then. So has my love of a game with equal violence, grace, and speed. Willie O’Ree is now being rightly heralded. Not only for his historic accomplishments on the ice, but his contribution to the game off the ice as well. He’s also instrumental in bringing the love of hockey to children of color who traditionally don’t get access to the game.

Breaking the Ice

Willie O'Ree Skating as PlayerO’Ree was born October 15, 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and broke the NHL hockey color line in 1958 with the Boston Bruins. Ironically, this was during the height of Jim Crow. It was also over a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball (1947) and Kenny Washington in the NFL (1946). The story of O’Ree is best told in his one words in the short documentary, Willie. O’Ree unveils an amazing story of being an African Canadian and his love of a game that, even to this day, is still a predominantly white sport.

His story is more than just hockey. His very life reveals a dynamic that most African Americans aren’t exposed to. We are familiar with the migration north by many southern Blacks during slavery and Jim Crow. The histories of New York and Chicago are chronicled by this migration. However, there is an entire Black History in Canada that we have barely been exposed to. During the documentary, O’Ree traces his roots back to Charleston, South Carolina where his grandfather was a slave to the O’Ree family. As if being an African Canadian and the first Black in the NHL weren’t enough, it’s probably his ambassadorship as the head of NHL diversity that epitomizes a hockey career worthy of being in the NHL Hall of Fame.

Black Hockey History

I literally sat in admiration watching the contributions O’Ree has made to bring hockey to people of color. Particularly to the inner cities where hockey may as well be a sport from another planet.  But like so many things in our illustrious history, Blacks and hockey have a long legacy dating back to the late 1800s.

The Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes (CHL) was founded in 1895 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada by a group of four Black Baptist Black Hockey Players circa 1800leaders and Black intellectuals. Hundreds of Black Canadians played on teams across the Maritimes over several decades. In fact, a Black Hockey Hall of Fame was proposed in 2006.

This suggestion was inspired by Black Ice: The Lost History of the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes, where author George Fosty says the slapshot and modern goaltending techniques [were] pioneered in the league. He writes “There was a gentleman named Henry Abrases Franklin that played for the Dartmouth Jubilees [and] he was actually the first goalie to go down on ice [to stop the puck],”. The slapshot and goalies making miraculous saves in some of the most contorted positions are hallmarks of any hockey game.

The Game

It’s understandable why Blacks would be attracted to hockey. It’s a graceful yet violent sport. In fact, O’Ree played for over 20 seasons through one eye. He lost sight in his right eye when he was stuck in the eye with a hockey puck. If you’ve ever held a hockey puck you know how hard it is. Now imagine being hit in the eye with one at 100 miles per hour. It’s a wonder he didn’t die or suffer a career-ending injury. The game was once known for the legendary fights that would break out on the ice. A hockey game without a one-on-one between two players was once considered dull. There were so-called “enforcers” that made sure star players were protected on the ice. My favorite came to be Donald Brashear, – a one-time Washington Capital.  

The sport is also known for two unique traditions. The first is the ceremonial handshake at the end of a Stanley Cup Series. The final game of the championship series concludes by both teams lining up and shaking each other’s hands in a sign of sportsmanship. No matter how hotly contested or bad-blood between players nobody is allowed to forgo this tradition.

Secondly, hockey has the most coveted trophy in team sports – The Stanley Cup. No team owns a Stanley Cup. It is awarded each year to the winning team. That team is then allowed to keep it for an allotted time between seasons. Then it’s returned to the league for the upcoming season. The trophy is engraved with the name of each player that has won a Stanley Cup.  

The Future of Blacks in Hockey

Oh, to be a kid again growing up with an understanding of the game of hockey and the history of Black players like I do now. That’s the feeling that comes over me when I see Black players on the ice these days. It’s becoming increasingly commonplace to see Black players on the ice during any NHL game with The Detroit Red Wings putting 3 Black players on the ice last year. A great deal of this can be attributed to the efforts of Willie O’Ree for his passion to see more people of color enjoying this fascinating sport.

With that being said, I’ll take a moment of personal privilege to highlight one of the present-day hockey players from WillieDevante Smith-Pelley. Smith-Pelly was a member of the 2018 Washington Capitals Stanley Cup team. He scored 7 goals during that run, including 2 game-winners; the game-winning goals in Game 4, and a spectacular game-tying goal in Game 5. As a long-time fan of this sport, I encourage everyone to watch a live hockey game. It is one of the few sports that cannot be truly appreciated on television. The closer you can get to the ice, the better.

Without the contributions and dedication of Willie O’Ree, the Color of Hockey wouldn’t be trending towards the increasing diversity we see today.

Willie O'Ree Holding Commemorative Coin


The NHL’s first black player, Willie O’Ree, had a short but pathbreaking stint with the Boston Bruins

2018 Induction Ceremony 

Willie O’Ree continues to spread his message of positivity


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