The NHL’s Jackie Robinson
What I learned from Willie O’Ree.
In January 1955, while playing for the Kitchener, Ontario, Junior Canucks, 19-year-old Willie O’Ree drove to the net hard with his hockey stick on the ice, looking to score by tipping the puck past the goalkeeper. He saw his teammate slap the puck towards the net, but could not see the puck rocket towards his head as it deflected off another stick. The impact of the puck shattered the retina in his right eye. He was rushed to the hospital by ambulance as blood poured from his eye socket. As he laid recovering in his hospital bed the next morning, his doctor looked down at him and said, “Unfortunately Willie, you will be blind in your right eye forever, and you will never play hockey again.” Willie was back at practice on the ice 10 days later.
Becoming the First Black Player in the NHL
After recovering quickly, Willie finished the year in Kitchener and received a phone call from a gentleman named Punch Imlach (who would later win three Stanley Cups as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984), who asked Willie to attend the Quebec Aces training camp in the fall of 1956.
“I was worried that they would give me an eye exam and discover that I could only see out of my left eye—thank goodness they didn’t,” Willie says. “In 22 years of pro hockey, only my sister knew that I could not see out of my right eye.”
Despite his injury, Willie made the Quebec Aces, had a great year and was subsequently invited to try out for the Boston Bruins in the fall of 1957. The Bruins sent him to the minors for another year before calling him up in January of 1988 to join them in Montreal on January 18 to play against the Canadiens. Although Willie did not record a point in the Bruins’ 3-0 victory that night, he played well and broke the NHL’s color barrier without the fanfare of his Major League Baseball counterpart Jackie Robinson. Overcoming his physical limitation was merely the beginning of what he likes to refer to as “finding a way.” Like all great pioneers, entrepreneurs, trailblazers and change agents, Willie possessed and nurtured that rare quality.
“I had to find a way to rebound from that eye injury,” he says. “I could have let it defeat me, but in my heart, I knew I had to find a way to make the Quebec Aces, to make the Boston Bruins. I did not know how I would find a way—I just knew that I would.”
This was especially difficult because Willie now constantly had to adjust to his limited eyesight to be effective. He often over-skated the puck and lost sight of it when he had to turn his head all the way around to see the puck with his left eye. It was but one of many adjustments Willie would have to make to earn a living playing the sport he loved.
“Willie was the fastest guy on the ice—no doubt,” says Johnny Bucyk, former Boston Bruins captain, three-time Stanley Cup champion and 1981 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee. “In retrospect, he missed a lot of scoring chances because he simply could not pick the puck up quickly enough in his line of sight to finish the play. That said, he found other ways to contribute. He was a fantastic teammate—he never quit. He made everyone that played with him better because he was always just so positive. You could say Willie was relentlessly positive.”
While Willie played only 45 games in the NHL, he went on to play 22 years of pro hockey in the minors. He helped build hockey in California 30 years before Wayne Gretzky showcased the sport there as a member of the Los Angeles Kings. After the Bruins traded Willie’s rights to Montreal in 1960, the Canadiens optioned his rights to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League. Willie went on to win two scoring titles due to his ability to pivot—to find a way to help his team win.
“My coach in the Western League, Alfie Pike, asked me if I would play right wing as that would help the team most,” says Willie. “I quickly realized that I could now see the entire ice surface. As a result, my scoring and effectiveness soared.”
The average pro athlete plays for about three years—Willie played for 22—all by finding a way. Some of his biggest challenges, though, were still to come.
When Willie retired, he yearned to stay involved in the game and somehow work his way back into the NHL has a coach or manager. In 1981, the NHL was a long way away from him in San Diego, and he had a wife and two young kids to support. He worked for a short time in season tickets and sponsorship sales for his last team, the San Diego Gulls, but had to find other ways to supplement his income. To do so, he sold cars, worked construction and held private security positions. His goals shifted from scoring goals to something else—feeding his family. He approached that responsibility with the same resolve and positive outlook that had served him so well in hockey. Again, he simply found a way even though his dream of somehow returning to the NHL seemed to fade as he approached his early 60s. At a time in life when most people are slowing down, Willie wanted another chapter.
Willie’s Second NHL Career
In 1996, while serving as the NHL’s vice president of business development, I had a conversation with two longtime friends and mentors at USA Hockey, Dave Ogrean and Lou Vairo. Together, we launched an initiative to grow the sport by making it more inclusive—we encouraged and put programs in place for boys and girls of all backgrounds to try hockey. To formalize that effort, we knew that we needed to find someone who embodied what we were trying to do. And we felt strongly that Willie was the right person for the job. When I called Willie and asked if he was interested, he asked if I was kidding—it would simply hurt too much if the NHL was not sincere in asking for him to jump back into the game. After convincing him that I meant what I said, I hired Willie to travel to and work with the programs springing up around the U.S. and Canada that were helping kids of color play hockey. I had no idea how great Willie would be at his job. To this day, when Willie walks into a room, he brightens it. His attitude and laugh are simply contagious, and his message to everyone who is fortunate to meet him is one of possibilities. He regales school auditoriums on a weekly basis with a second by second account of his first NHL goal, meeting Jackie Robinson when he was 12, and of the police escort he needed in Chicago Stadium when he would not back down from the Blackhawks enforcer who had knocked Willie’s teeth out with the butt-end of his stick. He notes the high and low lights, but always finishes with the same message—like me, you too can find a way.
Willie’s 60th Anniversary
On Jan. 18, 2018, my family and I watched with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Johnny Bucyk and others as 20,000 fans in the TD Garden in Boston rose as one to honor Willie O’Ree on the 60th Anniversary of his first NHL game. Willie will visit another 50 or so schools and hockey programs this year and talk to thousands of youth hockey players around the U.S. and Canada as he has done for the last 22 years as the NHL’s director of youth development. Willie is now 82 but still has the vice-like grip that scored hundreds of goals over 22 years of pro hockey. He is as fit as a man 40 years younger, and his energy and enthusiasm seems to be growing rather than receding.
“I waited 16 long years thinking I might never get back to the game I love—every day I get to work for the NHL and to help kids is truly an ongoing gift,” he says.
And his favorite memory? “Getting on the ice with kids—yesterday and tomorrow,” he says. “Every chance I get to do that is a memory and opportunity to cherish. I am lucky in that my memories and opportunities are the same…I still get to create new ones every day.”
Willie’s path has not been a straight or easy one. His tribulations and setbacks by far outnumbered his victories for many years, but those scales have tipped the other way because he redefined what victory was. Victory used to be goals scored; now it is kids that he has helped. That’s a wonderful feat that he has achieved by doing what he has always been great at—finding a way.