Growing Up in New Brunswick
O’Ree was raised in a large family in Fredericton, NB. He was the youngest of 13 children of parents Rosebud and Harry. O’Ree’s grandparents came to Canada from the United States through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery (approximately 30,000 fugitives escaped to Canada between 1840 and 1860).
To say that the O’Ree family was an ethnic minority in Fredericton at the time is an understatement — there were only two Black families in Fredericton while O’Ree was growing up. O’Ree’s father, Harry, was a civil engineer who worked in the road maintenance industry for the city of Fredericton.
O’Ree started playing hockey at age three and organized hockey at age five. He instantly had a passion for the game. O’Ree played regularly on the backyard rink of the family home and skated to school when weather permitted.
O’Ree has positive memories of growing up in New Brunswick. In his autobiography, The Willie O’Ree Story: Hockey’s Black Pioneer, O’Ree wrote that colour was never an issue on those early rinks:
"The fact that I was black never came up when we played as kids. You could have been purple with a green stripe down the middle of your forehead, and it wouldn't have mattered. It was only later, when I became older, that I learned what 'colour barrier' meant. "
Playing Hockey in New Brunswick and Québec
When O’Ree was 14 years old, he played organized hockey with his brother Richard, who was in his twenties and taught Willie how to bodycheck. By the time O’Ree was 15, he was playing for the Fredericton Falcons in the New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association (NBAHA) playoffs.
Over the next three years, O’Ree progressed through the Fredericton hockey system. In 1951–52, he played with the Fredericton Merchants of the York County Hockey League and three games with the Fredericton Capitals of the New Brunswick Senior Hockey League. After a season with the Junior Capitals, O’Ree made a step up to the senior ranks for a full season in 1953–54. While with the Fredericton Capitals, O’Ree played in the Allan Cup tournament, where he scored seven goals in seven games.
At age 19, O’Ree moved to Québec and played the 1954–55 season with the Quebec Frontenacs of the Quebec Junior Hockey League, where he had 27 goals and 17 assists for 44 points in 43 games.
Serious Eye Injury
In 1955–56, O’Ree played for the Kitchener Canucks of the Ontario Hockey Association. In one game, he got hit in the right eye with the puck. The shot also broke his nose and cheekbone. O’Ree lost 95 per cent of the vision in his eye, and was advised by a doctor to stop playing hockey. He was back on the ice within two months.
However, O’Ree could not tell anyone about the injury. According to NHL bylaws, he would not be eligible to play, as the league had (and still has) a rule forbidding all players who are blind in one eye from competing (Bylaw 12.6). O’Ree kept the injury as secret as possible. In an interview with Luke Fox of Rogers Sportsnet on 29 February 2012, O’Ree explained the situation he faced:
If it gets out that I’m blind in my right eye, I probably won’t be allowed to play pro, and definitely won’t be allowed to play in the National Hockey League. I never took an eye exam in all the 21 years I played. I never sat in front of an eye machine. I don’t know why back then they didn’t make me. It’s different now. Back then, they were more concerned with your physical condition, and I always kept myself in good shape.
O’Ree was extremely determined to make the NHL. As quoted in Breaking the Ice: “I had to play hockey again, because I had to make it to the NHL. That was always the goal, you see, ever since I was 13, and I wasn’t going to let anybody or anything stop me.”
In order for O’Ree to move up the ranks in the hockey world, he had to overcome not only a colour barrier, but also a genuine physical disability. To compensate for his blindness while playing left wing, O’Ree had to turn his head far over his right shoulder to see a pass.
The Quebec Aces
O’Ree returned to playing hockey in Québec after one year in Ontario and was eighth in team scoring with the Quebec Aces in the 1956–57 season (22 goals and 12 assists for 34 points). O’Ree would go on to play two more seasons with the Aces in 1957–58 and 1958–59.
As an organization, the Aces had a history of integration. From 1949 to 1953, Herb Carnegie, a Black hockey player from Toronto, ON, starred for the Aces in the Quebec Senior Hockey League. Carnegie, who played one season with Jean Béliveau, had 77 goals and 121 assists for 198 points in four seasons with Quebec. A member of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, Carnegie was one of the best players in hockey history to have never played professionally.
While playing with the Quebec Aces, O’Ree played on the same line with Stan Maxwell, another Black Canadian. Like O’Ree, Maxwell played for the Aces from 1956 to 1959.
For the 1957–58 season, the Aces formed a working relationship with the NHL’s Boston Bruins. The relationship meant that Aces players could be called up to the Bruins at any time.
O’Ree made hockey history on 18 January 1958 by becoming the first Black hockey player to play a game in the National Hockey League. The Bruins beat the Montreal Canadiens that night by a score of 3–0 at the Montreal Forum. After playing only two games in the 1957–58 season, O’Ree returned to the Bruins in the 1960–61 season and scored 4 goals and 10 assists for 14 points in 43 regular season games. On 1 January 1961, O’Ree also became the first Black player to score a goal in the NHL in a 3–2 win over the Canadiens.
The fact that O’Ree was the first Black player to play in the NHL received little interest at the time. His debut wasn’t mentioned in either The Boston Globe or The New York Times, and a Canadian sportswriter at the time wrote that O’Ree “was greeted with no emotion, no applause and, above all, no animosity.”
O’Ree’s NHL debut may have caused little reaction in Montréal because local sports fans were already familiar with O’Ree, who had played occasionally in Montréal as a member of the Quebec Aces.
After his short time in Boston, O’Ree went on to play 14 more years of hockey with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens of the Eastern Professional Hockey League, the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League, the New Haven Nighthawks of the American Hockey League and the San Diego Mariners of the Pacific Coast League.
One major reason why O’Ree was able to prolong his career was because he moved from left wing to right wing in 1964–65 at the age of 29. The Los Angeles Blades were weak at right wing and head coach Alf Pike had O’Ree change positions. O’Ree delivered instant results, recording 38 goals that season, a personal best.
O’Ree did, however, experience racial taunts from opposing players and fans. One night while playing in Virginia in the 1972–73 AHL season, fans tossed cotton balls and a black cat onto the ice. Throughout his time playing hockey, O’Ree remembers being treated worse in the United States than Canada. While playing with the Bruins in the 1960–61 season, O’Ree was the victim of racial taunts from a Chicago Black Hawks player. The player also butt-ended O’Ree with his stick and knocked out his teeth. O’Ree retaliated by breaking his stick over the player’s head and a brawl broke out.
Since 1998, O’Ree has been the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and ambassador for NHL Diversity. He has travelled throughout North America to promote grassroots hockey programs, with a focus on serving economically disadvantaged children. As head of the Hockey is for Everyone program, O’Ree promotes commitment, perseverance and teamwork as well as important life skills and education. O’Ree also hosts an annual all-star weekend that brings children of diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds together for a tournament.
Honours and Awards
In 2003, O’Ree was named the Lester Patrick Trophy winner for his outstanding service to hockey in the United States. O’Ree was honoured along with former Boston Bruins defenceman (and fellow Canadian) Ray Bourque and Ron DeGregorio, the current president of USA Hockey.
In 2010, O’Ree received the Order of Canada for his outstanding service to youth development and promoting hockey within North America. O’Ree also received the Order of New Brunswick (2005) and is an honoured member of the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 1984.
In 2018, the NHL established the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award in his honour. The award recognizes those who, like O’Ree, have used hockey to “build character, teach life skills and foster positive values.” It is open to anyone connected to the sport, including players, parents, coaches, referees, volunteers and rink owners.