Willie O’Ree’s time in Boston was fairly brief, though his legacy will run forever. A speedy left winger, he played his first couple of games with the Bruins in January 1958, then suited up for 43 more in 1960-61.
He was gone after those 45 games, never to play again in the NHL. He was 25, fast, still vital, and still black.
“My older brother, my mentor, always told me, ‘Willie, you can’t change the color of your skin, and you wouldn’t even want to,’ ” O’Ree said the other day, recalling the advice of his brother, Richard, one of 13 O’Ree kids who grew up in the family home in Fredericton, New Brunswick. “He said people will accept you for the individual you are.”
O’Ree is 82 now, and most Bruins fans might not know his unique place in the game’s history. Just over 10 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, O’Ree did the same in the NHL, called up from the minors by the Bruins to face the Canadiens in a home-and-home series 60 years ago.
“Just like family,” said O’Ree, recalling teammates of the day such as John Bucyk, Bronco Horvath, Don McKenney, and Doug Mohns. “They kind of took me under their wing, and I really fell in love with not only the team, but the whole Bruins organization . . . Milt Schmidt [then the coach] and GM Lynn Patrick. They were great, all of ’em.”
Years later, O’Ree had a jeweler make him a ring, commemorating his time with the Bruins. Then a couple of weeks ago, the Bruins, along with the NHL and the City of Boston, presented him with another keepsake of his groundbreaking time in the Hub, naming a street hockey rink in his honor. The Willie O’Ree Rink, part of the Smith Playground on Western Avenue in Allston-Brighton, is scheduled to open this summer.
“First time I’d ever been to that area of the city,” said O’Ree, who lived with a cousin in Roxbury and took the T to the Garden during his time with the Bruins. “I was just thrilled, overwhelmed, really. It brought tears to my eyes.”
O’Ree has been the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador the last 20 years, and he remains an unremitting wellspring of good will and optimism. For a guy who easily could focus on an NHL career that was kept short in part because of his color, he instead embraces what was good for him, and continues to tells kids, particularly those of color, the opportunities hockey can present them.
Here in Boston, O’Ree over the years has been a loyal supporter of SCORE Boston Hockey, a 22-year-old program that does an outstanding job of introducing inner-city kids to the game. When here for the recent street hockey ceremony, O’Ree visited the Eliot School in the North End, one of the city’s Innovation schools, the kids riveted to his message of hope and how he overcame the odds.
O’Ree made it to the NHL despite being virtually blind in his right eye, an errant puck leaving him with but 3 percent vision in that eye at age 20.
“I played another 25 years,” recalled O’Ree, all but 45 of his pro games spent in the minors. “And no one ever asked me to take an eye test — never once looked into an eye machine.”
It took some time to adjust as a half-blind hockey player, especially for a left winger who would have to collect his center’s passes from his blind side. In the early going, he would overskate pucks, miss the net with shots, fight the inevitable battle of frustration.
“I said, ‘Willie, forget about what you can’t see, and just concentrate on what you can see,’ ” he recalled.
One night in Chicago, his first stop there with the Bruins in 1960-61, O’Ree never saw Eric Nesterenko coming as the two converged behind the Hawks net. The strapping Chicago winger, who taunted him with racial slurs during warm-ups, said O’Ree, drove the butt end of his stick into the rookie’s mouth, knocking out his two front teeth, splitting open his lip and nose.
“He just stood there,” remembered O’Ree, “and made a couple of racial remarks.”
Ultimately it was neither words nor blood that led O’Ree to answer back with his stick, splintering it over Nesterenko’s head, and causing both benches to empty for an ol’ time Original Six donnybrook.
It was, instead, Nesterenko’s disturbing, insinuating silence.
“He just kept standing there and kind of laughed, that’s what set me off, his taunting,” O’Ree said. “And I said, ‘Willie, either I have to do something here or it’s going to be all over.’ So I just hit him right over the head with my stick, dropped my gloves, and it was on.”
Stitched back together in the dressing room, O’Ree wanted to return, even if only to sit on the bench in support of his Black and Gold teammates. Schmidt, the coach, refused his pleas.
“Milt said, ‘Willie, these fans are so violent, I’m afraid there is going to be blood, you could be hurt, and you’d better stay in the dressing room,’ ” O’Ree recalled.
In Boston, the Garden crowd was always kind, said O’Ree. He still remembers his first goal, Jan. 1, 1961, when a Leo Boivin pass sprung him down left wing and he raced in to shovel a short wrister past Montreal’s Charlie Hodge. O’Ree still has the puck, and the memory of the Garden’s standing ovation.
“Oh, they were great,” he said. “I remember that quite clearly.”
But it was Boston, and in those days, the Bruins suited up in a dressing room some 10-12 feet below street level. When the windows above some of the lockers were opened for ventilation, passersby could look in and yell down to the players.
More times than he would care to remember, said O’Ree, the faceless passersby, only their shins and shoes visible, would insult him with racist remarks.
Willie O’Ree, the Jackie Robinson of hockey, paid it no mind.
“In one ear, out the other,” he said. “Again, thanks to my older brother. He’d told me, if I was going to choose hockey as a career, ‘Don’t worry, names will never hurt you unless you let them.’ ”
The puck will drop soon at the new street hockey rink in Allston-Brighton, where kids would do well to forget about what they can’t see, and just concentrate on what they can see. Seeing through it all worked just fine for Willie O’Ree.