NHL Network Radio: Celebrating the legacy of Willie O’Ree

Willie O'Ree
LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 20: Former NHL player Willie O'Ree arrives at the 2018 NHL Awards presented by Hulu at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on June 20, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

So I’m watching a recent Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Pittsburgh Penguins game, and while I often change the channel when the period ends, I stayed with the game this time because I couldn’t believe what I had heard was coming up in the intermission show.

Some guys who had formed a hockey team were being given the chance to meet with Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, and I wanted to see it.

Normally this wouldn’t exactly be of huge interest, but how often do you get to see the members of the first hockey team ever formed in……..KENYA!!!

That’s right…..KENYA!

That’s right…we’re talking about right-on-the-equator, on the Southwest coast of AFRICA!!

It was amazing to see these guys talking and laughing and smiling with Crosby, who seemed to be having just as much fun meeting them.

Besides the uniqueness of a hockey team from a country where the median temperature is between 20-degrees-Celsius/68-degrees-Fahrenheit and 28-degrees-Celsius/82-degrees-Fahrenheit, let’s be honest here; to see a team made up completely of Black men is striking. Until recent years hockey was considered to be “a White man’s game,” and that’s what got me thinking even more about the coincidence of the Kenyan team meeting one of the NHL’s premier superstars.

This meeting came just a few weeks before the man who broke the colour barrier in the NHL, Willie O’Ree, is to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Willie O’Ree left his Fredericton, New Brunswick home in 1954 at the age of 18 to play junior hockey, first for the Quebec Frontenacs in the Quebec junior league, and then the Kitchener Canucks in what was then the Ontario Hockey Association. It was in Kitchener that he took a puck to his right eye, becoming permanently blind in it. Willie refused to allow that to stop his pursuit of a career as a pro hockey player. He simply didn’t tell anyone about it, and made the adjustment to see more out of his good left eye. After a couple of seasons of minor pro hockey, he was signed by the Boston Bruins in 1957, and appeared in just 2 games with the club that season.

Willie’s longest stint with the club was in 1960-61, where he had 4 goals and 10 assists in 43 games. But it wasn’t the numbers that made this season so interesting. He was hardly a star, and spent most of his career in the minors, winning a couple of scoring titles in the Western Hockey League. Instead, it was the impact of seeing a Black man wearing an NHL uniform that was so striking.

While he’s never held any bitterness or anger, O’Ree has also never shied away from any of the more “interesting” events of that season. They included having had to wait for two police officers to escort him off the ice in Chicago after a bench-clearing brawl, which began when his front teeth were purposely knocked out by the butt end of Hawk player’s stick. Another time, he had to be pulled away from a mob of hostile fans at Madison Square Garden who tried to yank him into the stands.

O’Ree has spent years working with the NHL promoting diversity in the game, and a lot of the success of the league has experienced in changing the makeup of who’s playing in the NHL can very much be traced to Willie O’Ree.

O’Ree is heading into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builders Category, and it only seems right. When you want your sport to seriously increase its universal appeal, you have to show kids of all walks of life that they can forge a place for themselves in it, and that it’s been done before by people who look like them.

When you look at the ever-increasing young men of colour who are making a living in the National Hockey League, names like Wayne Simmonds, Devante Smith-Pelly, Darnell Nurse, P.K. Subban, and maybe someday one of the members of Kenya’s first hockey team, someone had to lay the foundation for that dream. Someone had to start “building” that dream.

That’s where Willie O’Ree comes in, and that’s why he deserves to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.