In 1958, Wille O’Ree laced up his skates and changed the National Hockey League forever by becoming the first black professional hockey player. Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Willie was the youngest of 13 children and one of only two Black families living in Fredericton.
He started playing hockey at three years old and fell in love with the game. Willie joined the Fredericton Falcons in the New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association at 15 years old and quickly moved up the ranks AHA leagues around the Canadian provinces.
In the midst of the civil rights movement, integration of the US military and educational desegregation, Willie, the descendant of escaped slaves, was called up from his minor league club in Quebec to skate with the Boston Bruins. On January 18, 1958, Willie O’Ree made history by being the first Black player to play in the NHL, and on January 1, 1961, he became the first Black player to score a goal in the NHL. Willie played 45 games in the NHL and went on to play over 22 years of minor league hockey.
In his autobiography, “The Autobiography of Willie O’Ree: Hockey’s Black Pioneer,” O’Ree wrote that color was never an issue on those early rinks:
“The fact that I was black never came up when we played as kids. 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 “color barrier” meant”
Willie’s impact on the game goes far beyond the time he spent on the ice. Since 1998, he has been the NHL’s director of youth development and an ambassador for NHL Diversity.
This role has put him face-to-face with the future generations of players where he has helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs in North America as part of the Hockey is for Everyone initiative, inspiring more than 130,000 boys and girls to play the sport.
The vision he has held for a better hockey community has resulted in countless awards and honors. In 2008 O’Ree was inducted into the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor. In 2018, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builder Category.
Today, at 86 years old, Willie O’Ree’s passion for the game of hockey remains unchanged.
In January, the Boston Bruins retired the number 22 in honor of Willie and later this year he will receive the 116th United States Congressional Gold Medal, the U.S. Congress’ highest honor for his contributions to “hockey, inclusion and recreational opportunity.” O’Ree is the first player in NHL history to receive the honor.