On January 18, 1958, Willie O’Ree became the first Black man to play in a pro hockey game.
He skated onto the ice of the Montreal Forum, ordained in black and yellow, representing the Boston Bruins. Subsequently, Willie O’Ree was breaking the NHL‘s color barrier.
In fact, the Boston Bruins became the first team in the NHL to integrate their organization. During his debut, the Bruins shut out the Montreal Canadiens, winning 3-0. Although he didn’t score, he was grateful for the opportunity.
“It was the greatest thrill of my life. I’ll aways remember this day.”
Likewise, the Bruins and the city of Boston still celebrate that particular day 60 years later. Prior to the night’s festivities, Mayor Marty Walsh declared Jan. 18, 2018 to be “Willie O’Ree Day.” In addition, a newly constructed street hockey rink in Allston-Brighton has been declared Willie O’Ree Rink. The celebration continued well into the pre-game.
“It was the media that gave me the name, “the Jackie Robinson of hockey,”” said O’Ree. “It makes me feel good.”
Ironically O’Ree, recalls meeting Robinson at the age of 14. Nine years later he would go on to blaze his own path in the world of hockey:
“When I was 14, I was playing baseball in my hometown (Fredericton, New Brunswick) and we won the championship. The reward was our team was taken to New York to see the Empire State Building and Radio City Music Hall. I met Mr. Robinson at Ebbets Field down in the dugout, shook hands with him. Told him that I not only played baseball but I played hockey. And he didn’t realize there were any black kids playing hockey at that time.”
Today, at the ripe age of 82, the Canadian native reflects on four goals and 10 assists in 45 games over parts of two NHL seasons. He spent a total of 21 years in pro hockey.
As he watched his former team dominate the Montreal Canadiens in a 4-1 victory, he uses his career to show, hockey is for everyone.