Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Dec. 9, 2007.
IN 1996, WITH THE NATIONAL Hockey League as white as ever, league executives searching for ways to increase youth participation decided to direct their efforts at minorities. The NHL's vice president of new business development, a black man from Ontario named Bryant McBride, came up with a number of ideas to make that happen. One was to bring together inner-city kids from across North America for an annual all-star game. He wanted it to be a marquee event, though, so he needed a headliner to name it after - preferably a former player, and ideally one who had contributed to hockey's diversity history. McBride sought advice from Lou Vairo, a former US Olympic coach who grew up in a Brooklyn housing project and was working for USA Hockey in Colorado Springs. Vairo had an idea. "What about Willie O'Ree?" he said. "If he's still alive."
In the late 1950s, O'Ree broke the NHL's color barrier while playing for the Bruins. The thing was, nobody knew what had happened to him since then, or at least not the people running the league in 1996. McBride did some research, found out O'Ree was, indeed, alive, and that he was working in San Diego. He rushed the news to Gary Bettman, then and still NHL commissioner: "Our Jackie Robinson - he's alive!" "Make it happen," Bettman told McBride. "Do whatever you have to do."
Willie O'Ree has always had a bit of the barnstormer in him. During his 19-season, 10-team professional career, he went wherever there was a spot for him on the ice, travels that took him through eastern and western Canada, down to Southern California, where he lives now, and, for a little more than half a season, to the "Original Six" NHL cities as a member of the Bruins. That brief NHL stint, though, took place back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a lifetime ago. By 1996, most of the sports world - and, for that matter, the rest of the world - had forgotten about Willie O'Ree. Which explains how he found himself working in San Diego at the historic Hotel del Coronado as a security guard, making about $9 an hour, a soft-spoken black man with gray wisps of hair from the Canadian province of New Brunswick, creeping through his 60s politely and privately.
Every so often, O'Ree would bump into someone who knew who he was. Like the time before he took the job at the hotel, when he was assigned to work security for Michael Jordan at a pro-am golf tournament. Jordan grinned when he saw O'Ree. He knew he'd been the first black man ever to take the ice in an NHL game, that he was, as it's said, the "Jackie Robinson of hockey." But the vast majority of people O'Ree met had no idea. Then one day the phone rang, and Bryant McBride was on the other end. Said he was calling from the NHL, that he was a vice president. O'Ree's heart jumped. Ever since he retired from pro hockey in 1979, at age 43, he'd quietly been brainstorming about ways he might return to the game. He'd tried selling tickets for his old minor league club, the San Diego Gulls, but McBride was offering something much better. He said he wanted O'Ree to be a diversity officer who worked with kids to make the game a more inviting and inclusive place. Plus, he said he was from the NHL, the very place O'Ree had been trying to get back to since his short-lived appearance nearly four decades earlier.
O'Ree didn't drop his guard easily. As McBride recalls it, "I had to prove to Willie that I was real, that I wasn't pulling his leg." McBride also had to persuade O'Ree that the league's efforts were sincere - that, finally, after all the years as a so-called white man's game, the folks who ran the big show really did intend to color hockey. "I want to change history here," McBride told O'Ree. "I want all kids to get a chance at this game." Reassured that the push would be something long-term, O'Ree agreed. His business card would eventually declare him director of youth development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force - a lengthy way of saying "ambassador."
On January 18, 2008, 50 years will have passed since O'Ree's NHL ambassador career truly began: the Saturday night in 1958 when he skated with the Bruins' third line, playing sparingly in a 3-0 upset win over the mighty Montreal Canadiens that far upstaged the cultural significance of the evening. (On January 19, the Bruins will host Willie O'Ree Night to honor the 5oth anniversary of his first game.) He did not score, nor did he record a penalty. Yet O'Ree's achievement that night was startling: Not only had he broken the league's color barrier, but he'd done it while carrying a secret so inconceivable that if it had been known, he would never have been allowed to take the ice that night, nor ever again play in the NHL.
He was playing with only one eye.
IT'S A STEAMY LATE-SEPTEMBER MORNING in Plymouth, and Willie O'Ree is back where he always felt he belonged - among the pantheon of NHL players. He is one of the featured guests at the Bruins' golf tournament, along with Bobby Orr. Some days O'Ree ends up cruising along on autopilot, telling the same stories he's told for decades, smiling a lot and handing out NHL pins, shaking hands as if he were the town mayor. "Hey, good to see you! How are you!" But today, he is as close to raw as you'll find him around adults. He bellows his shoulder-shaking laugh whenever an old teammate's colorful memory sets it free - "Hukh-hukh-hukh-hukh!" Wearing a polo shirt with the NHL logo on his chest and a pair of Bermuda shorts, O'Ree sips from a glass of tomato juice on ice as he weaves through the crowd in search of his old coach, Milt Schmidt; he wants him to sign a picture of the two of them taken 46 years ago. An old man surveying the scene near a window spots O'Ree and whispers into his friend's ear: "There's Willie. Boy, could he skate." "Oh, I know," the friend replies. O'Ree's stride is young, and his arm and calf muscles still bulge through his skin like a man in his prime. He carries a solid 193 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame - only 13 more than his playing days, thanks to daily predawn workouts - yet when someone compliments him for being in such good shape, O'Ree flashes his wide white grin and brushes it off. "For the shape I'm in," he chuckles.
O'Ree's job with NHL Diversity keeps him on the road about 200 days a year - a 72-year-old icon with a twice-replaced knee and a recently fused ankle strolling incognito through airports. He is famous for his stamina, and, given his job, it's an essential trait. There is an unending tug from outsiders that comes with his ambassador role. For this story, O'Ree granted only two hourlong interviews; after that he declined any additional requests. "I already answered all your questions," he'd say. "I don't have time." He also bristled when asked about his life away from hockey (O'Ree has been married to an Indo-Canadian for 38 years and is the father of three adult children, two of whom are from a previous marriage). He admits that sometimes the frustrations of traveling can wear him down (others contend the NHL takes advantage of him by placing so much of its diversity burden on his shoulders). Still, no matter how trying his duties get or how much he wishes he could stay closer to home, he always finds solace in his mission. "Just as long as there's kids there," he says.
According to the NHL, O'Ree has exposed more than 40,000 kids to the sport since he began working for the league in 1996. When he meets them, generally at schools or clinics or camps, O'Ree always asks of them one thing: to give the game a chance. "If you don't like it," he tells them, "you can walk away." The odds are long that any of the kids he meets will follow in O'Ree's footsteps, but they're particularly long for the black kids. It took 41 years for a black player to appear in an NHL game, and after O'Ree did so, another 16 years passed before the next one made it. In the 90-year history of the league, there have only been 40 black players; 14 of those filled NHL roster spots during the 2006-07 season, comprising about 2 percent of the league's makeup.
For all the progress that hasn't taken place since he broke the color barrier, however, O'Ree points to that which has. There are more black kids playing hockey today than ever, he says. More girls, too. In his role with NHL Diversity, O'Ree works with more than 40 inner-city youth hockey programs throughout North America. They are mostly small, grass-roots outfits run independently by local volunteers, although some are much larger, such as Disney GOALS in Southern California, which serves 1,500 kids and operates on a corporate-backed budget of $1 million. Locally, SCORE Boston, the city's urban hockey initiative, was launched in 1996 with $1,500 in seed money and 25 donated pairs of skates. While many of the other programs are run by white banker-types seeking a way to give back to their communities, SCORE was founded by a muscular black goalie named Bruce Holloway, a former homicide detective and now a Boston Police Department superintendent, who was raised by his great-grandmother in the Roxbury projects.
Holloway learned the game by barnstorming around the city during racially unstable times in the 1970s. "I sort of forced my way in," he says, and, in a sense, so did SCORE. It's come a long way from the "baby-sitting" service it once was, yet even as a respected hockey club with about 150 skaters, the goals remain modest. "I encourage our people not to talk about how these kids are going to make it to the NHL," Holloway explains, "but, more realistically, about how we may have saved a life, because they weren't on a street corner for the couple hours that they were with us." It's a rare occasion when Holloway references his two inextricably linked passions at once. Only recently, in fact, after his face began showing up on local news broadcasts, did his players learn what "Coach Bruce" does for a living. "I just always kept [hockey and work] separate," says Holloway. "I didn't want anybody to know."
O'Ree only gets to visit SCORE and its peer programs once or twice a year, but his impact lasts far longer than the span of his visit. Todd Levy, chairman of Ice Hockey in Harlem, calls the pioneer "a genuine leader and inspiration, as opposed to, for lack of a better term, just a puppet for diversification" - a point that was never more apparent than on a cold, snowy day in Alaska last March. O'Ree had conducted a camp there the previous summer and had been invited back for the state bantam (ages 13 and 14) tournament, in Juneau. The championship game pitted the mighty host squad against a group of undersized players from a small town called Palmer. Juneau had outscored all its opponents 50-4 going into that title game, so Palmer coach Jim Acher went searching for a miracle. He asked O'Ree if he would address his team. "When I was a player," O'Ree began, "I had to fight to get on the ice." His voice quickly grew louder. "I had to fight while playing, and sometimes I had to fight to get off the ice. Look at me - I'm just a little guy! But I wanted to do it, and I did it. Size doesn't mean anything in hockey. It's the size of the heart in the player that matters. I watched you guys play the other night, and you guys are good hockey players. You're gonna take this team!"
By the time his speech ended, the kids were looking at O'Ree as if he were Superman. The energy carried Palmer to a 3-2 lead after two periods, and O'Ree greeted the team as it came off the ice, high-fiving a group of puny believers. He walked up to Acher, whose club would eventually win 4-2. "Your kids have this locked up," O'Ree said. "I could see in their eyes."
THE LAST OF HARRY and Rosebud O'Ree's 13 children, Willie learned about life and race in Fredericton, New Brunswick, a city of 10,000 back in the 1940s where only two black families lived. He didn't take long to discover the magic of sports, particularly hockey, and he loved how they helped him feel accepted. O'Ree also happened to be a professional baseball prospect, but like so many Canadian kids, black or white, his first love was hockey. By the time he was 19, O'Ree had signed on with an elite junior team in Kitchener, Ontario. He was getting noticed. Then everything changed. During a game, someone redirected a slap shot, and the puck exploded in O'Ree's face. It broke his nose, shattered the cheekbone around his right eye, and destroyed his retina. The doctor reconstructed O'Ree's face, but there was nothing he could do about his eye. Sadly, he told Willie, the sight in his right eye was 97 percent gone. He'd have to give up hockey - and his dream of playing in the NHL.
Stunned, O'Ree thanked the doctor and left. During the eight weeks it took to recover, he made his decision. He'd keep playing hockey, and with only two exceptions - his youngest sister and best friend - he'd keep his handicap a secret. NHL rules, after all, required two working eyes. There was only one problem with his plan, and it was a significant one: O'Ree, with his left-handed shot, played left wing. With no vision in his right eye, he had to wrench his head all the way to his right shoulder to pick up the nonstop peripheral action around him. He'd always been a gifted skater and scorer, but suddenly he had trouble getting off accurate shots while at top speed, a weakness that would prompt an unfortunate nickname, "King of the Near-Miss." He scored enough, though, that when the Bruins found themselves in need of a forward in January 1958, they called up O'Ree, then 22.
He met the team at the historic Montreal Forum, where the Bruins were playing the Canadians, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. Boston coach Milt Schmidt told his team before the game they were getting a "colored" player, but that he was to be treated no different from anyone else. It turned out it wasn't a problem for the Bruins, but O'Ree was sent back down after two games. He thought he would be recalled quickly. It took three years. When he finally was promoted during the 1960-61 season, he scored four goals with 10 assists in 43 games, but it was not enough for the Bruins to commit to him. They traded him, and despite playing 16 more seasons in various feeder leagues - and winning two scoring titles after switching to right wing - he never made it back to the NHL.
O'REE TOLD ONLY ONE PERSON ABOUT HIS sight problem during his NHL career: his teammate Doug Mohns, whom he swore to secrecy in an empty locker room before practice. Stan Fischler, the legendary hockey writer and broadcaster from New York, who has covered the NHL for more than 50 years, only learned in 1998 O'Ree was blind in one eye. The pioneer kept his handicap so quiet that many of his former teammates - even Schmidt, his former coach - still aren't convinced he was able to play at such a high level with half a normal man's sight. Schmidt, 89, says: "If that was the case - and I can't swear to it, but that's what I heard - he did a helluva job with that one eye. If that was the case." O'Ree got by on his skating ability and by playing the game with guts and grace. "Willie could skate circles around Wayne Gretzky," says Fischler. "He was very fast and lyrical. Just smooth, no herky-jerk." "He was a good stand-up fighter," recalls Don McKenney, who centered O'Ree's line with the Bruins. "He didn't grab you. He just boxed."
Despite his talents and gritty style, O'Ree was berated constantly by opposing fans and players because of his color. He downplays his experiences by saying they were less trying than what Jackie Robinson faced in the South, but the truth is, he could tell stories of hatred for days. He calls one "the incident that sticks with me."
"My first trip to Chicago," he says, his Canadian accent still audible despite all his years away, "there was a big, long, lanky right-winger named Eric Nesterenko. I'm in behind the net, and when I go to turn, Nesterenko comes in on my blind side. I couldn't see him. He takes his stick and butt-ends me, splits m'nose, knocks m'two front teeth out, and splits m'lip. He made racial remarks at me, but it wasn't the racial remarks that set me off. He just stood there and laughed, like, 'What's this guy gonna do? He's probably not gonna do anything.' Well, I had to make a choice right there. Either turn and skate away or fight. I hit him over the head with my stick. Cut his head open. Broke m'stick in half. Soon as I did that, I dropped m'gloves, because I knew we were gonna fight. And he dropped his gloves and grabbed me - he was strong - and hit me a coupla times. So I grabbed him and tried to get a couple in. And then both benches emptied. The Bruins come off their bench, the Blackhawks come off theirs, and there's a big donnybrook on the ice."
Nesterenko, who lives in Colorado now, says he doesn't remember saying anything racial. "I don't think I would've said something like that. I don't remember anyone breaking their stick over my head, either."
O'Ree continues: "We both get ejected from the game. The doctors go in and plug m'nose, stitch me all up. And I wanna come out and sit on the bench. But the fans became so upset with me that the police said if O'Ree comes back out, there's gonna be an attempt on his life, so I had to stay in the dressing room." He remembers turning out the dressing room lights and telling himself, "Willie, you don't need this. You can go back to your hometown; you can hook up with the hockey team there." But then he hardened again. "I turned the lights back on and said, 'Screw it. If I'm gonna leave the league, I'm gonna leave because I don't have the ability and skills to play anymore. I'm not gonna leave it because some guy's trying to get me out.'''
O'Ree's commitment to coloring the game will always be unquestioned, and because of that, some say, the NHL uses him as a token, to cloak an otherwise passive stance on diversification. A number of inner-city program directors interviewed for this story spoke of broken promises by the league, phone calls that never get returned, and "closed doors" with regard to funding (the NHL refused to say how much it spends on diversity programming). "It's just a showpiece," says Dave Wilk, who runs Disney GOALS, the largest inner-city hockey program in North America. "They trot it out there." Les Franklin, founder of a youth program in Denver and a longtime friend of O'Ree's, explains the dynamic this way: "The NHL does not care - that's their lie; Willie cares with every ounce of his body." "They're using him as a showcase," argues Art Dorrington, 77, a black hockey pioneer from Nova Scotia who launched a program for underprivileged kids in New Jersey 10 years ago. "They're taking advantage of him."
O'Ree, who made $17,500 in his best year as a pro and admittedly needs his job to reach retirement, wouldn't discuss the issue. Of his colleagues' claims, he said only: "That's their opinion. Everyone has their own opinion." The NHL's senior vice president of communications, Bernadette Mansur, became irate when told the topic would be addressed in this story. "It's quite unprofessional to bring the league into this," she snapped and then hung up the phone. An assistant later e-mailed a statement: "We have great respect for the work performed by the diversity program volunteers, appreciate their desire for additional support and will continue looking for ways to augment our historical relationship as the League's revenues increase post-lockout."
The annual Willie O'Ree All-Star Weekend, which originally brought O'Ree back to the NHL, was last held in 2004 (it is tentatively scheduled to return in 2009). Mansur said its absence, as well as many of the league's diversity shortcomings, are lingering results of the lost 2004-05 season. Critics, however, say the problems are broader. They say the NHL doesn't promote its minority players enough, to give the next generation faces to look up to. They also contend the league could attract more corporate sponsors to the diversity programs, encourage players to contribute to their local programs, and unite the programs as the NHL Diversity umbrella was designed to do. "I'm president of the NHL Diversity Task Force," Franklin says, "and that's like being president of hot air. Because we don't meet, we don't talk; there's nothing going on. It's supposed to be staffed by an NHL employee."
O'Ree, meanwhile, goes about his business, which means focusing on hockey, a world in which he never feels lost, but where he still harbors a tinge of regret, too. When asked how good he could have been with the use of both eyes, he leans back and gazes high up toward the Garden rafters. After a pause, he says quietly: "I think I could have been an all-star."
O'Ree, who is not a member of the Hall of Fame, made peace with his fate nonetheless, even when he felt forgotten. "I was working. But I still told myself, you're going to get back into hockey. Just stay focused on what you want to do and the things you want to accomplish, and make it happen." It's the mantra he's lived by for 72 years, the same one he imparts to the thousands of kids he meets. Gerald Coleman, the only player from an NHL Diversity youth program to have appeared in the NHL, met O'Ree when he was 13 and in need of direction. His parents tried to steer him away from hockey, and when he played in Chicago's wealthy suburban rinks, he'd hear opposing parents shout to their kids from the stands: "Why are you letting that nigger beat you?" His high school gym teacher, who doubled as the school's basketball coach, even gave Coleman an "F" because the 6-foot-2 freshman chose hockey over hoops. But Coleman never gave in and was eventually picked in the 2003 draft by Tampa Bay. Looking back on the day he met O'Ree, he says it made him think - Why can't I be like that? "He just gave me a reason to want to keep playing," says Coleman.
O'Ree's beliefs on diversity remain as firm ever. "It's not a losing battle at all," he says, emphatically, as if to defend against a ludicrous alternative. "I still set goals for myself, and I see more black players getting into the NHL." As he stands up to leave, the hockey player in him can't help but steal one last glance toward the empty ice. The Bruins have finished practicing. O'Ree turns just until the glowing white surface comes into view, then he stares, transfixed almost, as he takes it all in with his lone left eye, the one that still holds such singular vision.