While Willie O'Ree's NHL career consisted of just 45 games over two seasons, it is the historical impact of his NHL career that has led him to Honoured Member status in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Born on October 15, 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Willie O'Ree was a prolific junior scorer with the Kitchener Canucks of the Ontario Hockey Association in 1955-56. The following next season O'Ree joined the Quebec Aces, a senior team affiliated with the NHL's Boston Bruins. Willie tallied 22 times, helping the Aces win the Edinburgh Trophy, awarded to the winners of a series between the senior champions of the Western Hockey League and the Quebec Hockey League.
“When I went to Quebec (Frontenacs of the Quebec Junior Hockey League) the first year (1954-55), Phil Watson was the coach. He said, ‘Willie, you know there are no black players in the NHL. You could be the first. You have the skills, you have the ability.’ When I went to Kitchener (in 1955-56), (coach) Jack Stewart told me the same thing. When I turned pro with the Quebec Aces (in 1956-57), (general manager) Punch Imlach told me the same thing. It started to register with me. That gave me the extra confidence I needed.”
Sure enough, the Boston Bruins summoned Willie O'Ree to Montreal on January 18, 1958 to replace an injured player in that night's contest against the Canadiens, making him the first player of colour to play in the NHL. While breaking the colour barrier in the NHL didn't carry the magnitude that Jackie Robinson's debut with baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers did, nevertheless, it was a historic moment in the game's history.
That stint lasted but two games before O'Ree was returned to the Aces, but on November 18, 1960, Willie was again recalled to the Bruins. He ended up playing 43 games on left wing for Boston that season, scoring four goals and 10 assists.
It was an unenlightened era, and while Willie had endured racial taunts throughout his hockey career, visiting NHL arenas was no different. He was taunted by fans, especially in the United States. Following that season, O'Ree was traded to the Montreal Canadiens. Willie never again played in the NHL, but his playing career would continue in the minors until 1979.
The magnitude of Willie O'Ree's hockey career as a black player cannot be underestimated. The second black player to join the NHL was Mike Marson, and that did not take place until the 1974-75 season with the Washington Capitals. O'Ree's NHL career, albeit brief, opened the door for other players of various races to dream about NHL careers.
While working for a San Diego hotel in 1998, the NHL hired Willie as the Director of Youth Development for its diversity task force. The NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force is a non-profit program that encourages minority youngsters to play hockey. The results are palpable. And in addition, NHL players are now required to enroll in a pre-season diversity training seminar, and race-based verbal abuse is punished through suspensions and fines.
Willie O’Ree’s career, including his pioneering NHL breakthrough, has been widely recognized. His hometown of Fredericton added O’Ree to its Sports Wall of Fame in 1992, and in 2008, the city named a new sports complex after him. He was elected to the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984, and in 2005, was named to the Order of New Brunswick. In 2006, O’Ree was added to the Black Ice Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame. He was honoured by the NHL during the 2008 NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta. San Diego State University presented Willie with an award for Outstanding Commitment to Diversity and Cross-Cultural Understanding in 2008. That same year, he was inducted into the San Diego Hall of Champions honouring that city's finest athletes. In 2003, O’Ree received the NHL’s Lester Patrick Trophy for his contributions to hockey in the United States. And then, in 2008, Willie O’Ree received the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award given to a Canadian Citizen.
In 2018, the NHL introduced the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, presented to the person who best utilizes hockey as a platform for participants to build character and develop important life skills for a more positive family experience.