Mr. President, Willie O'Ree made history on the night of January 18, 1958, but for too long the significance of what he accomplished that night went largely unacknowledged. Every American should know Willie O'Ree for his rightful place in history: he is the Jackie Robinson of hockey--the first player of African heritage to play in the National Hockey League.
Unlike Jackie Robinson's widely heralded debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers 11 years earlier, Willie O'Ree's appearance on the ice for the Boston Bruins 54 years ago got little notice in the press. The New York Times simply reported: ``The Boston Bruins, with a Negro, Billy O'Ree, in the line-up for the first time in National Hockey League history, scored once in every period tonight to beat the first-place Montreal Canadiens for the first time in eight games, 3 0.'' Sports Illustrated had even less to say in its Scoreboard column: ``Boston made history by bringing up Quebec's Billy O'Ree, first Negro to play in NHL.''
But it was a milestone for hockey--and a dream come true for the 22-year-old Willie O'Ree, who had spent his boyhood in New Brunswick, Canada--the youngest of 13 children--idolizing such NHL legends as Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard. He liked baseball, too, landing a tryout with the Milwaukee Braves minor league team in Waycross, GA, in 1956. He even got to meet Jackie Robinson on a trip his baseball team made to New York in 1949.
Willie was as good at shortstop as he was at second base. He was good at the plate, too. And with his speed, he stole a lot of bases. But to him, baseball was just a way to stay in shape for hockey. To him, ``there was just something about hockey,'' he always said. He started skating when he was 2 years old and began playing organized hockey when he was 5.
He explains his love of hockey in words all of us who share his passion for the game can appreciate. ``When I put a pair of skates on and a hockey stick in my hand and started maneuvering the puck,' he says, ``I just became obsessed with it. I had that burning desire within me.''
That burning desire--that deep ambition--drove Willie O'Ree through almost two minor league seasons with the Quebec Aces before being called up by the Boston Bruins for that historic game in Montreal against the Canadiens in 1958. But after that memorable night, he would play only one more game with Boston before being sent back to the minors for the rest of the season.
But in 1960, Willie O'Ree was back with the Bruins for 43 games, including one memorable game at the Boston Garden in which he scored the winning goal in a 3 2 victory over Montreal. It came in the third period. Willie broke away from his check, got a perfect pass from Leo Boivin, stick handled past two Canadiens players, then from 10 feet out fired a shot past goaltender Charlie Hodge. More than 13,000 Bruins fans jumped to their feet and gave Willie a 2-minute standing ovation.
That year, Willie had a total of four goals and 10 assists with the Bruins, but that was the end of his NHL career. He spent the next six seasons in the Western Hockey League, then nine more seasons in the Pacific Hockey League until he retired in 1979 at the age of 44. Most seasons were productive despite the fact that at 19 he had suffered an injury that left him blind in his right eye. Doctors said he would never play hockey again. They were wrong. With aggressiveness, fearlessness and speed, he scored nearly 500 goals in his 21 years playing professional hockey.
His own impairment was no obstacle to Willie O'Ree. Neither was the blind bigotry of those who filled his mailbox with anonymous death threats, those who screamed racial epithets at him from the stands, those who even tossed black cats out on the ice, even those players who took countless cheap shots at him, in a time when players did not wear helmets or face shields. Willie responded the same way as Jackie Robinson had in 1947 when he broke the color barrier in baseball--with quiet strength and calm dignity. ``I just want to be a hockey player,'' he said, ``and if they couldn't accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.''
It wasn't until 1974 that another black player, Washington's Mike Marson, made it to the NHL. It is undeniable that Willie O'Ree--his talent and his character--opened the NHL to other minorities. But Willie's ground-breaking days are far from over. For the last 14 years, he has served as the NHL's Director of Youth Development and ambassador for NHL Diversity, part of the NHL Foundation supporting hockey programs for boys and girls throughout North America. He is constantly on the go, running clinics and speaking at schools all across the continent, teaching not only hockey but also how to live life off the ice. He continues to spread the word that ``hockey is for everyone.''
We have recognized and celebrated ambassadors from all over the world. We should also honor Willie O'Ree who is the ultimate ambassador not just for hockey, but for dignity and respect and even courage in the world of sports. The world weathers so many storms and so much uncertainty, but at the center of each we find people of character who revive our hope and give us strength. Willie O'Ree is such a man, and we are all blessed to have his strength as an example.
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