By DAVID SHOALTS
Monday, November 12, 2018
TORONTO -- Jan. 18, 1958, is a date now celebrated by the NHL as the beginning of its efforts to get more people - from all races and incomes - involved in hockey. But as Willie O'Ree remembers it, at the time it was nothing special.
Oh, his parents were there, at the Forum in Montreal along with some close friends who also made the trip from O'Ree's hometown of Fredericton.
But only because it was O'Ree's first NHL game and it was at the hallowed Forum, hockey's shrine no matter what Toronto Maple Leafs fans said. And if your son was making his NHL debut for the Boston Bruins against the Bleu Blanc Rouge, then you had better be there.
"No, I wasn't," O'Ree said when asked if he was aware of any significance of the game other than his first NHL appearance. "I was just so happy the Bruins called me up, to be able to play in the Montreal Forum against the Montreal Canadiens, who had been winning the Stanley Cup year after year back then. "It didn't dawn on me. I read it in the paper the next day. I know, it seems strange."
What O'Ree read in the paper was that 11 years after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in Major League Baseball, he was the first black player to participate in an NHL game. The fact was more or less an afterthought in the day's coverage of the game, as O'Ree recalls.
Then again, diversity was an afterthought for far too long in the NHL. Unlike baseball, which soon had black players throughout its lineups once Robinson appeared with the Brooklyn Dodgers, integration in hockey took a long time to take hold.
O'Ree played that night in Montreal and the next in Boston. Then he was sent back to the minor leagues. There would be a further 43 games in the NHL with the Bruins in 1960-61 when he scored four goals and added 10 assists and that was it. Back to the minor leagues for almost 20 years, mostly with the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls of the old Western Hockey League, before he retired as a player in 1979 at the age of 43. It would take another 16 years for the second black player to appear in the NHL, in 1974 when Mike Marson made his debut for the expansion Washington Capitals. By that time, the NHL had grown to 18 teams from six.
The excuse for the lack of black players or any other minority players was long that too few of them played the game. There was some validity to that, but only some.
There were still players, such as Herb Carnegie, his brother Ossie and Manny McIntyre - who starred as a line for the Quebec Aces, the same team that sent Jean Béliveau and many others to the NHL - unable to crack the colour barrier.
Along the way, O'Ree had to endure the usual racial taunts and violence that come to those who seek a rightful place in a lilywhite institution. However, when he receives the highest honour his sport can give him, induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame more than 60 years after that night in Montreal, there is no sense of bitterness about O'Ree.
"I am blessed," he said more than once in the days leading up to Monday's Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies, when O'Ree, along with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in the builder's category plus former players Martin Brodeur, Jayna Hefford, Martin St. Louis and Alexander Yakushev, go into the Hall of Fame.
Part of that might be because O'Ree was lucky to even have a minor-league hockey career, let alone a brief stop in the NHL.
When he was 19, O'Ree was struck on the right eye by a deflected puck that destroyed his retina and broke his nose and his cheek bone. The attending doctor told him he would never see out of that eye again and his hockey career was over.
O'Ree knew if his junior team in Kitchener, Ont., or the Ontario Hockey Association, let alone the NHL, ever knew about his eye he would be finished as a player. So he returned to practice within three weeks, adjusted to playing with only half of his field of vision and took a vow of silence, with one exception.
"I kept it a secret. The only person I told was my younger sister and I swore her to secrecy," O'Ree said. "When I came back to play, everybody thought I recovered from my injury. Nobody questioned it. They said, 'Oh, he's ready to play.' "I never told anybody and I never sat in front of an eye machine in the 21 years I played after that. No, I was never given an eye test. I'm totally blind [in the right eye]."
But O'Ree also feels blessed because the same league that denied him a chance for a real playing career also discovered him 22 years ago and gave him a second career as one of its most beloved ambassadors, one that also helped get him into the Hall of Fame. He travels North America tirelessly as the NHL's inner-city ambassador, speaking to and working with children who do not have the means or the opportunity to play hockey. The league pays the cost in many cases for those who cannot afford the pricey sport.
O'Ree says it was Lou Vairo, a long-time coach and USA Hockey executive, who is responsible for his second coming to the NHL in 1996. Bettman started a diversity program and the league was looking for someone to be a beacon for it when Vairo pointed out the NHL had its own Jackie Robinson. After he was tracked down in San Diego, where he was working as a hotel security guard, O'Ree agreed to come aboard. Since then, he has spoken to thousands of children all over the continent in schools, community centres, arenas and "any place where there's boys and girls and I think they can get an opportunity to play the sport," O'Ree said.
At 83, O'Ree has cut his travel back some and may even retire "in a couple of years."
If he does, it will be with a sense of accomplishment.
"We are going in the right direction," he said. "I wouldn't have stayed with the program for over 20 years if I didn't think there was something out there that was good for the league."