Willie O’Ree: Reflecting the Values of Our Community
On that January night in Montreal in 1958, when 22-year-old Willie O’Ree skated into history as the NHL’s first black player, his family, friends and fans back home in Fredericton were cheering. Sixty years later, with his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, they’re cheering again. Nobody deserves the honour of being in the Hockey Hall of Fame more than Willie O’Ree. It is an honour long overdue, an honour well deserved.
Since that memorable night in Montreal, Willie’s life has become a symbol of fairness, equality and understanding, values that his mother and father — Rosebud and Harry — passed on to him and his 12 siblings. Well respected in Fredericton, and throughout the province, the O’Ree Family continues to make positive contributions to our community. Had Willie’s grandparents not escaped slavery in the pre-Civil War United States through the Underground Railroad, our city, province and our country would never have benefitted from their rich legacy.
It is to the credit of our community that colour was not an issue for Willie when he was a child playing on neighbourhood rinks near his home on Charlotte Street. “The fact that I was black never came up when we played as kids,” he writes in his autobiography The Willie O’Ree Story: Hockey’s Black Pioneer. “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.”
It was on those neighbourhood rinks that Willie discovered his passion. When he was three, he learned to skate and handle a stick. At 14, playing organized hockey with his older brother Richard, he learned how to bodycheck. A year later he was playing for the Fredericton Falcons in the New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association playoffs. Willie O’Ree was on his way.
As significant as his accomplishments on the ice have been, there is much more to Willie O’Ree than hockey. The many honours and accolades he has received, including the Order of Canada, affirm not only his skill as an athlete but also his courage and determination in the face of adversity. It is that courage and determination around which our community rallied to get Willie into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In February, when I said in the House of Commons it was long overdue that Willie be inducted into the Hall of Fame, I had no idea of the groundswell of support that was building for this idea — support not only from our province but from throughout North America.
Bill Hunt’s articles in the Daily Gleaner were instrumental in building that support, as was the media attention from the CBC and other media outlets. The province and the city each played an important role by issuing proclamations, and the mayor and council of the Village of New Maryland also offered support. Thanks to everyone for getting the ball rolling, or, more appropriately, getting the puck moving.
Much of the credit for Willie’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame belongs to the team of more than 300 people who knew this was something that had to happen. As Brenda Sansom, who, along with her husband David worked hard to focus the collective energy and enthusiasm for the idea, observed, many of the people involved had some kind of personal contact with Willie. Some even remember watching him play at the old York Arena when he played for the Fredericton Capitals during the 1953-54 season.
During the 1955–56 season, while playing with the Kitchener Canucks of the Ontario Hockey Association, a puck slammed into Willie’s right eye, robbing him of 95 per cent of his vision in that eye. Doctors advised him to retire. Within two months, he was back on his skates. For the remainder of his career, Willie kept the injury a secret fearing it would end his career if anyone knew. “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.”
Nothing has stopped him. Neither physical limitations nor racial taunts have held him back from pursuing his goal. Willie’s journey is a story of transcendence, a story that has inspired, and continues to inspire, many. For the last 20 years of his journey, Willie has been the NHL’s director of youth development and ambassador for NHL Diversity. Every year, he travels the continent promoting local hockey programs, with a focus on helping children whose families are economically disadvantaged.
Like his mother and father who raised a large and well-respected family into which he was born in 1935; like his grandmother and grandfather who journeyed from slavery to freedom, Willie O’Ree is dedicated to the values of fairness, equality and understanding.
These values bode well for him in his role as head of the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone Program, which uses the game of hockey — and the NHL’s global influence — to effect positive social change and foster more inclusive communities. Hockey is for Everyone supports any teammate, coach or fan who brings heart, energy and passion to the rink.
Willie O’Ree knew people would be staring at him that January night at the old Montreal Forum. Nervous though he was, he chose to keep on skating. Thank you for making that choice, Willie! You are an inspiration to us all. As you like to say quoting Lincoln: “If you think you can you can, if you think you can’t you’re right!”