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The Jackie Robinson of hockey

By breaking the color barrier in hockey in 1958, Willie O’Ree’s achievement should be remembered and celebrated along with Jackie Robinson’s.

Former Boston Bruins hockey player Willie O'Ree waved to the crowd in Boston after being honored on the 50th anniversary of breaking the color barrier in the NHL after the first period of the Bruins hockey game in January 2008. Looking on was Bruins legend John Bucyk.Winslow Townson/Associated Press

If the Red Sox will always be castigated as the last team in Major League Baseball to field a Black player, the Bruins should always be respected as the first team in the National Hockey League to put a Black player on the ice.

That achievement, by the great Willie O’Ree, will be immortalized Tuesday night at TD Garden when the Bruins retire O’Ree’s No. 22 prior to the game against the Carolina Hurricanes, 64 years to the day that he took the ice against the Montreal Canadiens.

By breaking the color barrier in America’s national game in 1947, Jackie Robinson became an icon of not just the civil rights movement, but popular culture, the subject of countless books and films.


As hockey was Canada’s national game and the NHL then consisted only of the six original teams — Boston, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, and Toronto — O’Ree’s accomplishment attracted far less acclaim.

There were 16 major league teams when Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves, making the arithmetic for O’Ree’s breakthrough even more extraordinary.

Robinson blazed a trail for hundreds of Black players to follow him into the major leagues. But after O’Ree’s debut it wasn’t until 1974 that another Black player made an NHL team. That 16-year gap makes O’Ree’s achievement stand out even more.

Even more extraordinary: two years before the Bruins called him up, O’Ree took an errant puck in his right eye. He swore a team doctor to secrecy and played the rest of his career while blind in one eye.

The NHL was the last major professional league to integrate, and between O’Ree’s breakthrough and 1991 only 18 Black players made it to the NHL.

Throughout most of the 20th century Canadian players comprised more than 90 percent of NHL players. When O’Ree started playing hockey in his native New Brunswick, Black people comprised less than 1 percent of the Canadian population. Today, Black people comprise 3.5 percent of Canada’s population, and in more recent years there have been about two dozen Black players in the NHL.


As he recalled in his autobiography, O’Ree wasn’t aware of racism as a child.

“The fact that I was Black never came up when we played as kids,” he wrote. “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.”

A Chicago player racially abused him, and knocked out some of his teeth by butt-ending him with a stick, but O’Ree said his Bruins teammates and coaches were supportive.

“Racist remarks were much worse in the US cities than in Toronto and Montreal,” he once said. “Fans would yell, ‘Go back to the south!’ and ‘How come you’re not picking cotton?’ Things like that. It didn’t bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.”

After retiring, O’Ree became a great ambassador for the game, the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador since 1998.

O’Ree will be beamed into the Garden virtually from his home in San Diego.

“While my family and I looked forward to participating in the ceremonies in-person, the long travel and associated risks that come along with a cross-country trip have led us to make the difficult decision to participate virtually,” he said in a statement. “I want to thank the Bruins organization for their support and understanding, and I remain incredibly honored.”


He will become the 12th Bruin to have his jersey sent to the rafters, joining Lionel Hitchman, Dit Clapper, Eddie Shore, Milt Schmidt, Bobby Orr, Johnny Bucyk, Phil Esposito, Ray Bourque, Terry O’Reilly, Cam Neely, and Rick Middleton.

Those 11 had better stats than O’Ree, whose NHL totals were four goals and 10 assists in 45 games. But his contributions to the game, and to the game of life, are immeasurable.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.