Willie O’Ree, his ever-engaging smile as wide as a rink-length rush, will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame Monday night in Toronto, more than 60 years after he broke the NHL color line as a left winger with the Bruins.
“Boy, could Willie skate,” said John Bucyk, who also suited up for the Bruins that night in Montreal, Jan. 18, 1958, when O’Ree, an eager kid from Fredericton, New Brunswick, changed the game. “Good guy, and the guys in the room really liked him. Great shot. And could he wheel.”
An impressed Frank Selke, the Canadiens general manager who witnessed O’Ree’s debut at the Forum, said, “It looks like he could go all night.”
But ultimately, O’Ree, now 83, began to assemble his greatest legacy in the game decades after his brief NHL career ran its course. He had two tours with the Bruins, a total of 45 games and a modest line of 4-10—14. He went on to play another 14 seasons in the minors, but by the time the NHL began to expand in the late 1960s, O’Ree was approaching his mid-30s. He was yesterday’s news in an industry that would not see another black player on an NHL roster until 1974.
O’Ree now will be inducted into the Hall as a “Builder,” but he might be more appropriately categorized as a “Connector,” having spent the last 20-plus years taking the game to the streets as the game’s inner-city goodwill ambassador.
As a Pied Piper of pucks, O’Ree has exposed thousands of US and Canadian children, many with skin color a shade closer to his own, to a sport too often dismissed in their culture as a game for somebody else, for kids in other places, of other races, and often with greater financial means.
He has preached a hockey-is-for-everyone message for years, a strong message coming from a guy who can speak first-hand of a time when the NHL was almost exclusively all-white and all-Canadian. For the Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds, one of the most talented black players in today’s NHL, it’s O’Ree’s bona fides behind the message that he feels make for a convincing sell.
“The thing is, Willie was the first,” said Simmonds. “He had no one to communicate with or talk to about the hardships he had to go through. He was the astronaut and the moon was the NHL.”
Simmonds grew up in the Scarborough section of Toronto, the same neighborhood that delivered Rick Middleton to the Bruins, and also, around the same time in the ’70s, Mike Marson to the Washington Capitals.
“We were the first and only black family in Scarborough, as far as I knew,” recalled Marson, 63, from his home in Toronto. “Guys would drive by and throw garbage at our house and tell us to go back to Africa. And as a kid, I’d think, ‘What’s this all about?’ ”
Marson, chosen at age 18 by the Capitals in Round 2 of the 1974 draft, was the second player of color to make it to the NHL. It had been more than 13 years since O’Ree’s final game with Boston in 1961 when Marson made his debut. Hockey wasn’t like baseball, which saw scores of players enter MLB after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947. More than 16 years separated the debuts of O’Ree and Marson.
“As a black kid then [in the early ’60s], the way the culture was, you thought of service jobs, maybe working for the railroad,” recalled Marson. “I was probably in, oh, Grade 6 or 7 and we had one of those career days in school. They brought in firemen, policemen, and whatnot. They asked us what we wanted to be, and I said, ‘I’m going to be a professional hockey player!’ And they’d look at me and it was, ‘Oh, what’s this guy, cuckoo?’ ”
Quite to the contrary, asserted Marson, a 5-foot-9-inch fireplug forward. His dream had been in the making for some time, it turned out, and it was because of O’Ree.
“We’d watch ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ every Saturday night,” said Marson, who was only 5 when O’Ree played his final game with the Bruins. “It would be me, my uncle Romeo, and my dad Sid.
“I’m not sure if the game was in Boston or Toronto, but I saw Willie playing for the Bruins, and there was all this fuss about him being black. Right there, I said, ‘OK, that’s what I want to do.’ And I remember saying to my father, ‘I’m following Willie O’Ree.’ ”
Follow the dream
Simmonds had a similar experience at his school, also in Scarborough. Born in 1988, he never saw O’Ree or Marson play, but his parents made him aware of O’Ree’s impact on the game.
“They were big on that,” said Simmonds, recalling his first read of O’Ree in the book “Black Ice.” “You have to know your past before you know where you are going, right?”
He was in Grade 3 or 4, he recalled, when his teacher at Charlottetown Elementary in Scarborough asked the class to write a paper about career aspirations.
“I want to be a hockey player,” piped up Simmonds, now finishing up a contract that will have paid him some $24 million over the last six seasons. “And the teacher said, ‘Well, everyone wants to be a hockey player, Wayne. You can’t just say you’re going to be a hockey player and that’s it.’ And I just refused to write about anything else.”
He had the dream in his head and heart, the same as O’Ree decades earlier. Why change? O’Ree made it, and against odds that might have been bigger than race. An eye injury in his junior hockey days left O’Ree blind in one eye. He made it to the height of his profession as a one-eyed black man.
“I just thought, this is my dream, why am I going to change it or write about something else if this is truly what I have set in my mind?” recalled Simmonds. “I know a lot of kids are probably like that, but I was in the right spot at the right time, and I worked extremely hard — and I made my dream come true with a lot of help with a lot of other people along the way.”
Simmonds, as well as P.K. Subban, another of the NHL’s top black players, benefited directly or indirectly from youth programs founded by the NHL’s diversity task force under O’Ree, according to Bryant McBride, who was the NHL’s vice president of business development.
“I knew at a very young age about Willie O’Ree and what he’s done for the game of hockey and what he continues to do,” said Subban, offering his thoughts recently after a Predators practice in Nashville. “Hats off for him being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“I think it’s important not only for Willie, but it’s important for the game of hockey to celebrate someone like that and what they continue to contribute. And not just kids of color — kids from any background that want to play.”
A call out of the blue
McBride, who later became an agent for NHL players and today is a Boston-based entrepreneur, was the NHL representative who initially contacted O’Ree about working with the league. O’Ree had played another 15 years of minor pro hockey, mostly in California, before retiring with the Pacific Hockey’s League’s San Diego Hawks at age 43 in the spring of ’79.
He was long out of hockey, working as a security guard at the iconic Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, when McBride contacted him in 1994.
“He didn’t believe me when I called him at first, either,” recalled McBride, who also is black.
Internet searches not being what they are today, McBride enlisted help from a friend at the FBI to track down O’Ree in San Diego.
“Willie was like, “What? Who is this?’ ” said McBride. “He didn’t want to be disappointed. He was 60 years old, and I could tell he didn’t want to be put on that roller coaster: ‘Oh, some young jerk is calling me, hoping I’ll do an appearance or two.’ He had a steady job. He’d let go of the NHL. And I’m there saying, ‘Listen, this is what I’m doing . . .’ ”
Lou Vairo, onetime coach of the US Olympic hockey team, was the first to suggest that O’Ree could be the perfect fit for a diversity task force.
“Lou had seen him play for the Bruins at the old Madison Square Garden,” recalled McBride. “So there’s a lot of people to thank for Willie, including Lou, and especially Gary Bettman.”
Bettman, the NHL commissioner, also will be inducted into the Hall of Fame Monday night. O’Ree and Bettman formed a close friendship over the last 20-plus years.
The Globe sports section of Jan. 19, 1958, carried details of the Bruins’ 3-0 win over the Canadiens the night before at the Forum. “Negro Star in Lineup” noted the headline.
Larry Regan, Bronco Horvath, and Bucyk scored for the Bruins. Harry Lumley posted the shutout, while Jacques Plante allowed all three in the Habs net. One of Plante’s best saves: stopping a breakaway bid by O’Ree, who blitzed off the wing with a feed from linemate Don McKenney.
The new young kid on left wing was speedy, Boston general manager Lynn Patrick commented postgame, “but he still has things to learn.”
And even more to teach.