scorecardresearch Skip to main content

‘Be the best individual you can be’: Willie O’Ree documentary is a story of perseverance

Willie O'Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images/Getty Images

The wonderful story that is Willie O’Ree, the ex-Bruin winger who became the first player of color to suit up in the NHL in 1958, is about to play to a much bigger audience, beginning April 29 in Toronto.

“Willie”, a splendid 89-minute documentary about his life’s journey, will make its debut at Hot Docs, the annual Canadian International Documentary Festival in downtown Toronto.

Ex-NHL player agent Bryant McBride and Laurence Mathieu-Leger, a Montreal-born filmmaker, succeeded splendidly in putting together a hockey movie that encompasses the myriad interesting facets of O’Ree’s life, including his triumph over racism and his continued work to expose kids of all colors and economic backgrounds to the game he grew up loving as the youngest of 13 children in Fredericton, New Brunswick.


O’Ree, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November in the builders category, said by telephone last week that he had yet to see the movie. His first viewing will be at its rollout in Toronto, after which, McBride and Mathieu-Leger hope, it will be distributed by a variety of media outlets and platforms.

O’Ree’s story, albeit hockey through and through, at its core is a lesson in perseverance, resiliency and career focus, and above all, preserving dignity when faced with the overt and subtle challenges of racism.

“Just go out and play hockey and be the best individual you can be,” said O’Ree, recalling the advice that his older brother, Richard, gave him some 70 years ago. “You know, I knew I was going to be faced with racism, prejudice, bigotry and ignorance, but I just let it go in one ear and out the other — I really did. I always kept it on the ice and told myself, ‘Willie, it’s going to be tough, but you have the strength within you just to be the person that you are.’ ”


Along the movie-making journey, O’Ree was introduced to a part of his life story that he never knew.

According to McBride, now an entrepreneur who lives in Lexington, the dogged work of Mathieu-Leger paid off. Her archival search in South Carolina discovered that O’Ree’s family lineage traced to slave owners in 18th century Charleston. The movie details how landowner Col. Elias O’Ree gave his slaves to son James O’Ree in the late 1700s, and ultimately how the NHL’s first black player was a direct descendant of one of those slaves having made his way to Fredericton.

All of it, the 83-year-old O’Ree said from his home in San Diego, was news to him.

“Oh, it was,” he said. “A lot of things were first-hand news to me. We went down to South Carolina and saw the archives [details] of the land and property and everything. I was in awe. I just couldn’t believe it.”

McBride was an NHL executive in the mid-1990s, working for commissioner Gary Bettman, when he implored the league to hire O’Ree as a goodwill ambassador, a role that led the ex-Bruin eventually to become the face of the league’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative. McBride and Mathieu-Leger were neighbors at the time in Harlem, and it was their friendship that ultimately led to the idea of partnering in the “Willie” documentary.

“The idea . . . and then about $500,000,” recalled McBride, adding that the cost easily would have been four or five times higher if not for resources, particularly old film footage, that Bettman insisted the NHL donate. “Like everything, we weren’t going anywhere without the money.”


A substantial chunk of the financial backing came from JP Morgan Chase, where Frank Nakano, the company’s New York-based head of sports and entertainment marketing, committed the dollars only minutes into McBride’s initial pitch.

It helped that Nakano also once worked in NHL headquarters with McBride, and even more that he knew O’Ree and parts of his story.

“Easy decision for us to jump in,” recalled Nakano. “No. 1, the authentic nature of the story. When I was with the NHL from 1995 to 2004, Willie was the ambassador for a lot of the grassroots programming, and I got to see him at work and hear his stories. But he very much underplayed the first-black-player-in-the-league part of it.

“Then as the years went by, and I started hearing the story and his background . . . it was just so incredible; we felt it was a story important to tell.”

According to McBride, the documentary shooting wrapped up in Ottawa, with O’Ree meeting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Dec. 20. Less than three weeks later, the finished copy of the film was submitted to Hot Docs among some 10,000 entries. “Willie” made a group of 220 to be considered for the festival, and then made the final list of five that will be showcased at the Toronto festival.

“If everybody could meet Willie O’Ree, they’d have a better understanding of the importance of getting an opportunity,” said McBride, who grew up in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, his family one of only three black families in a city of some 80,000. “And hockey provides a bunch of opportunities. It is a safe space for kids to grow and learn. Willie’s devoted the last 20-plus years of his life to that.


“But hockey is at the top of the list for kids of color to play for one really important reason: if you can give your kid one thing, give him or her resilience. In hockey, you’re guaranteed to get knocked down. What’s the first thing you learn? To get back up. That’s Willie’s stories. He got up, kept playing, thrived.”


Lightning, Penguins bring back painful memories

Steven Stamkos and the Lightning were swept out of the first round of the NHL playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets.Chris O’Meara/AP/Associated Press

Raise your hand high to the arena rafters, hockey savants, if you figured the Hurricanes would play longer into the spring of 2019 than both the Lightning and the Penguins.

Within some 30 minutes of each other Tuesday night, both the Bolts and Pens were dealt out of the party, each dismissed in the minimum four games. Tampa succumbed to the Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh to the Islanders, each knocked out with shocking proficiency.

“We didn’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time,” a dazed Jon Cooper, the Tampa Bay bench boss, said minutes after his top-seeded bunch of Bolts were bum-rushed out of Nationwide Arena in Columbus. “That’s not an excuse — it’s a reality.”

Long-in-the-tooth Bruins fans could relate to the stunning slip-and-fall by the Lightning, who rolled up a league-best 62 wins and 128 points this season and were “gifted’ the Blue Jackets (47 wins, No. 2 wild card) in Round 1. What a gift.


The Bruins, fresh off their 1970 Cup victory, marauded through the league in the 1970-71 regular season, and entered the postseason as the heavy favorite to clinch their second title in what many figured would be a perennial string of championships.

It may be too soon to remind some readers here of the result (reverse spoiler alert!), but the dreaded Habs, backed by 23-year-old rookie Ken Dryden, sent them home them in Game 7. It was not as quick or convincing as the knockout Columbus dealt Tampa Bay, but it was no less of a shock, given that the Bruins had the game’s biggest star in Bobby Orr and a mountain of regular-season statistical bonafides (including Phil Esposito’s career-high 76-76—152).

The Bruins weren’t just going to win the Cup in ’71, they were going to stage a three-round, six-week victory tour, a coronation. Another festive, beer-drenched celebration was booked at Government Center.

Until Dryden.

“A thieving giraffe!” Esposito labeled the unflappable ex-Cornell goaltender.

Although true the Bolts might have fallen asleep the last two months — their playoff spot assured by Valentine’s Day — the Blue Jackets deserve more credit for their energized one-week shredding of Steven Stamkos & Co. Above all, they played hard, executed tenaciously, rebounding from a 3-0 deficit in Game 1 of the series and sucking the marrow straight from the Bolts’ bones.

The read from here: never underestimate a young, talented team, one that had never won a playoff series, operating at full buy-in. Once coach John Tortorella finally formulated the right fits for high-profile deadline acquisitions Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, the Blue Jackets finally got some lift over the final two weeks of the regular season. Now they’re flying and easily could make it to the Cup Final.

We saw that here across ’68 and ’69, the Bruins finally figuring they belonged in the postseason after going DNQ from 1960 through ’67. The Blue Jackets don’t have Orr or Esposito, but neither does anyone else.


Maple Leaf Gardens is now just super

This red dot in a Loblaws supermarket in Toronto marks the spot of the former center ice faceoff circle at Maple Leaf Gardens.KEVIN PAUL DUPONT

Maple Leaf Gardens, home to the Leafs from 1932-99, remains in fine working order, repurposed mainly as a bustling Loblaws supermarket at the corner of Church and Carlton streets.

The hallowed joint where Dave Keon and Borje Salming once played is now redolent with the aroma of Loblaws roasted carry-out chicken and BBQ ribs, adjacent to the store’s sushi bar and festive flower market. Students from nearby colleges keep the area humming like it never did in the bad old Harold Ballard days.

Ryerson University also utilizes a large chunk of the grand old building, which was constructed in less than six months in 1931, to house its Mattamy Athletic Center. A full sheet of ice and accompanying seating are situated on the top floor, as if the Gardens’ old surface was levitated heavenward.

Once the city’s sports and entertainment epicenter, the building now is chock-o-block full of old black-and-white photos from its glory days, lending a museum feel to it all, particularly in the common gathering areas of the Mattamy Center.

As for the Loblaws, an expansive spread at street level, its subtle homage to hockey might escape even the most trained eye. A basketball-sized red dot is marked on the linoleum floor of Aisle 25, where customers can choose from a vast array of international rices, noodles, and bottled sauce (rice with the goal, noodles and sauces each with assists).

Most of the shoppers are unaware the red dot marks the spot where the Gardens’ center-ice faceoff circle stood for some 67 years of NHL games.


Svechnikov made poor business decision

The Hurricanes’ Andrei Svechnikov, left, and the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin fought during Game 3 of their Eastern Conference playoff series.Grant Halverson/Getty Images/Getty Images

Hard to know exactly what gets said in the middle of a knife fight, but it was obvious Monday night that Hurricanes rookie forward Andrei Svechnikov asked Alexander Ovechkin for a fight. If not once, then twice, and with conviction.

Ovie obliged, at first reluctantly, then at full throttle.

“A very poor business decision,” said Brian Burke, the ex-NHL GM turned Canadian TV commentator.

Watching from his perch between the benches as the fight unfolded, NBC commentator Pierre McGuire called out, “This is going to be a knockout!”

In a matter of seconds, the 6-foot-3-inch, 235-pound Ovechkin dropped the 6-2, 195-pound Svechnikov like a load of southern Siberian coal. Knocked unconscious, be it from Ovie’s jackhammer right hand or from his head thumping on the ice, Svechnikov recovered overnight in a local hospital.

Some longtime NHL commentators immediately began to ask if Svechnikov’s action would: 1. Earn him the respect of his teammates for standing up to the legendary Ovechkin or 2. Serve as a rallying point for the ’Canes.

The far better question: uh, really?

Unless you just wandered in from, oh, the ’74 Cup Final, the NHL fight game is the felled, dying brontosaurus sucking in its last bit of oxygen in the snow-covered plains. Once one of the game’s great spectacle and box office draws, albeit less so in the playoffs, fighting serves no purpose in today’s game — particularly in the postseason.

Related: Fighting is at a historic low in today’s NHL

Svechnikov, who just turned 19 late last month, proved only that he can’t take a punch, barely can deliver one, and apparently has a keen aptitude for picking bad matchups on the fight card. It was an ugly beating.

The Hurricanes returned to action Thursday night and evened the series with the defending Cup champs, 2-2. Svechnikov, sporting a facial shield, practiced with his teammates in the morning but was not in the lineup come faceoff time.

Following NHL standard operating procedure, the Hurricanes offered little update regarding Svechnikov’s condition. Coach Rod Brind’Amour wouldn’t even say the kid was concussed.

“That’s a better question for other people,” said an obfuscating Brind’Amour, noting the club was following “protocol” in regard to such injuries. “So, I don’t know if he has a concussion, if he was diagnosed.”

Reminder to one all: concussions are brain injuries. If teams care not to comment, that’s no surprise. It’s a business. They have tickets to sell.

For the most part, the same goes for the players. However, the players are the ones literally getting their brains damaged — be it by ordinary game action or “a very poor business decision.” If they care enough about looking for answers and mitigating the number and severity of concussions, they would be wise to break their silence after these injuries and further the cause of research and remedy.

In the end, it could be that realistic answers don’t exist and brain injuries are just part of the price of signing up to play the sport. But silence, and buying into team methods of saying nothing about them, surely offers no path to remedy.

Loose pucks

Headed into Game 6 of the Bruins-Leafs series Sunday in Toronto, Tuukka Rask had started 57 consecutive playoff games in the Bruins net, dating to April 2013, the year he backstopped the club through Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The last goalie not named Rask to start a postseason game for the Bruins: Tim Thomas in Game 7 of the first round vs. the Capitals in which the defending Cup champs lost to the Ovies, 2-1, in overtime.

Thomas, the Conn Smythe winner of the ’11 playoffs, appeared in only one more postseason game, a 15-minute cameo role for the Dallas Stars in 2014. He ended his career with a total 51 postseason appearances.

Rask’s expected start on Sunday stands to be his 71st lifetime appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, ranking him second all time in team history, behind Gerry Cheevers (88). Rask surpassed Andy Moog (70) and Frank Brimsek (68) last week.

Until this playoff series, Moog owned club record for consecutive games played in the Boston net (56). Rask now owns that mark, and unlike Moog, all of his appearances were in a starting role.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.