As the country came together on Monday to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the world of hockey took part in honoring King’s legacy by honoring that of one of hockey’s greatest trailblazers, Willie O’Ree. This year’s MLK day fell on the 63rd anniversary of O’Ree breaking hockey’s color barrier when he debuted with the Boston Bruins in 1958.
Known by many as the Jackie Robinson of hockey, O’Ree was honored by all 20 NHL teams who played on Monday. Each team wore a special decal on their helmets that featured an image of O’Ree wearing his fedora with the words “Celebrating Equality.” Following this, the Bruins plan to hold a ceremony where they will retire his number 22 before the February 18 game against the New Jersey Devils.
O’Ree started skating at the age of three and playing hockey at the age of five. His NHL aspirations began at the age of 14. In his path to the pros, O’Ree greatly embodied King’s words that, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
O’Ree faced no shortage of trials as he was the centerpiece of groundbreaking moments in the game. While playing junior hockey at the age of 20 O’Ree was struck in the right eye by a slapshot, losing most of his eyesight in that eye. O’Ree did not let that hamper one bit of his hockey career.
“I just told myself, ‘forget about what you can’t see and concentrate on what you can see,’ ”O’ Ree said. His resilience eventually earned him an invite to Bruins training camp.
On January 18, 1958 at the age of 22, he was called up from the Quebec Aces minor league team, making him the first African American player in NHL history. O’Ree faced violence and taunts from both players and fans, but that didn’t deter him from appearing in 45 NHL games and scoring four goals in his career. As O’Ree managed to turn a blind eye on the racial prejudices he was facing, he did not turn a bind eye in his efforts off the ice to build-up diversity in the game. He has played an active role in establishing 39 grassroots hockey organizations in North America as a part of the NHL’s Hockey Is For Everyone initiative.
O’Ree’s legacy has continued to inspire other hockey players to move forward, particularly players of color participating in the game today. Hockey continues to struggle with racial diversity like no other American professional sports league. According to Yahoo! Sports, in 2020 only 5.7% of NHL players were people of color. Several groups have continued to form in a greater effort to both promote diversity and confront racism in the game. One such group is the Hockey Diversity Alliance. This group was recently formed by nine current and former NHL players of color to show a sense of greater unity among the league in addressing these issues.
“People are starting to understand the importance and the positivity of becoming more diverse”, said Sharks forward and group co-head Evander Kane according to NBC Bay Area. “I just want hockey players to get on that same level as some of these other sports, because I love the game so much and I believe that our game is the best game in the world.”
While hockey has a long way to go to address awareness on issues of race, leaders like Kane hope to incrementally inspire change in the games culture so it is more ethnically inclusive; following how O’Ree has opened the gate for vast numbers since 1958.