Willie O’Ree; Legacy of an Unsung Hero

Julia Brennan

January 29, 2021

Learn more about the exceptional career of Willie O’Ree, NHL’s first professional African-American hockey player. Filled with struggles and triumphs, O’Ree’s legacy is one to be admired in the history of hockey.

Who is Willie O’Ree? Perhaps you have never heard of him before; he is not a household name like Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson, but his work was just as, if not more, important. Willie O’Ree came onto the public scene at the age of twenty-two. On January 18th, 1958, Willie O’Ree broke the barrier in the NHL by becoming the first African-American professional hockey player. He played for the Boston Bruin. O’Ree’s career spanned 45 total games in the NHL for the Bruins and recorded 4 goals and 10 assists. Facing setbacks, his road to success was not an easy one. O’Ree had been blinded in one eye by a puck that struck him in the face when he played in the lower leagues. Unfortunately, as sent back down to the Bruins’ farm team after only two games. Determined, O’Ree worked harder to make it back up to the top. However, a poor eye was not the only hurdle he had to overcome.
He faced constant discrimination and prejudices, racial slurs, and threats throughout his career. “Every time I went on the ice I was faced with racial slurs because of my color and my brother taught me names will never hurt you unless you let them” he stated. While his playing career was incredible, Willie O’Ree’s exemplary character has cultivated his great legacy over the past few decades. He has traveled across North America, speaking out against racism and encouraging teenagers to join the sport of hockey. He has helped not only to grow the sport but helped the game become inclusive.
O’Ree started more than thirty hockey programs across North America, including a team for the visually impaired youth. In 2018, O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builders’ category, an acknowledgment that was long overdue. This past week, O’Ree was honored by the NHL by becoming a symbol for their newly instituted diversity initiatives. Throughout the league, players will wear stickers with O’Ree on them throughout Black History Month, a tribute to his legacy and love for the sport.
On January 18th, the 63rd anniversary of his debut in the National Hockey League, it was announced that Willie O’Ree’s number would be retired as a Boston Bruin. He became the 12th Bruin to have his number retired, and the 3rd African-American player in the league to receive such an honor. The ceremony will take place on February 18th as the Bruins take on the New Jersey Devils. Tune in to watch as number 22 is hung from the rafters, forever honoring O’Ree’s incredible legacy.