Fifty years ago this month, black athlete Willie O’Ree took to the ice for the Boston Bruins. It was a decade after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. O’Ree also skated with a secret that would have barred him from playing professional hockey. He could only see through one eye.
Go here to listen to a short audio interview O’Ree gave NPR. Good stuff.
O’Ree is a tireless promoter of the game and the NHL, and at 72 years old hasn’t seemed to slow down a bit. January 18th will mark his 50th anniversary since suiting up for the Boston Bruins as the first black player to skate for an NHL team, which the Bruins will be honoring with a “Willie O’Ree Night” on the 19th.
O’Ree is constantly traveling and giving interviews. He blogs, he podcasts, he goes to games, he creates grassroots hockey programs for disadvantaged kids. And from where I’m sitting, he does it all with humor, charm and a decided lack of ego.
NHL.com claims that O’Ree has probably exposed some 40,000 minority children to a unique hockey experience of some kind or another, and I can believe it. As a kid, I remember there was a time when I knew more about Willie O’Ree than I did about Gordie Howe.
Really, there are so many ways I think this man is an inspiration beyond being a role model to minorities trying to reach the NHL. It’s hard not to be a fan of Willie O’Ree.
Below is a video interview he gave to Pittsburgh Penguins TV last November. He explains some of what he does with the NHL’s diversity program.
Note: Also, at the Esquire Party last year, O’Ree spoke to NHL.com’s Evan Grossman [video player launch] and shared a bit about what his early years were like with the NHL.