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Willie O'Ree: First Black Player In NHL Leaves Lasting Impression On Hockey

Willie O'Ree was a special hockey player, though when he stepped on the ice to play for the Boston Bruins for the first time, few publicly recognized one of the most unique aspects of O'Ree's ascension to the NHL.O'Ree was black, and he was the first black athlete to play a shift of hockey in the National Hockey League.Willie O'Ree Chooses HockeyO'Ree's story is typical of hockey players struggling to make it into the National Hockey League in many ways. Growing up in Frederiction, New Brunswick, O'Ree played baseball and hockey. He eventually chose to focus on hockey, and by the time he reached his early 20's, O'Ree was playing with the Quebec Aces in the minor leagues. Over the next few years, O'Ree would be called up to the NHL during two different seasons.The similarities end there, however. As the first black man to step onto the ice in the NHL, O'Ree left lasting impressions and contributions on the players and league.First Black Player in the NHLIt was Jan. 18, 1958, and the Boston Bruins needed to call someone up to fill an injured player's position. As a winger, O'Ree fit the bill and was chosen to fill the spot. O'Ree played two games that season with the Bruins, and at the time, no mention was made of the color barrier that he had just broken.Often referred to as the "Jackie Robinson of Hockey, " O'Ree did not realize what kind of impact he would have on the sport until years later. To O'Ree is was just another game of hockey -- a game that allowed him to reach his goal of playing in the big league.It wasn't until the Bruins called O'Ree back up in the 1960-61 season that he realized that his skin color could make a difference when playing a game. The difference was most pronounced in the United States, he said, where he was often threatened, taunted, and spit on. Despite the treatment he received in America, O'Ree did his best to play the game and ignore the harsh realities of being a black player in a predominantly white league."I never fought one time because of racial remarks, " O'Ree told ESPN's Tom Renaldi in 2008. "I fought because guys butt-ended me and speared me and cross-checked me. But I said 'If I'm going to leave the league, it's because I don't have the skills or ability to play anymore. I'm not going to leave it 'cause some guy makes a threat or tries to get me off my game by making racial remarks towards me.'"O'Ree, the Boston Bruins and an eye InjuryDuring the 1960-61 season with the Bruins, O'Ree would play 43 games, scoring four goals and 10 assists. Although he never made it back to the NHL after that year, he continued to play in the Western Hockey League for 19 more years. O'Ree won the WHL league goal scoring title in 1964-65 - an impressive feat for a guy who spent his entire career playing out of one eye.During the 1955-56 hockey season, in his last year of junior hockey, O'Ree was hit in the eye with a puck, shattering his retina. He lost 97 percent of his vision in his right eye and was told he would never play hockey again. O'Ree told very few people about his injury, and was never forced to take an eye exam. Had it been known that O'Ree was nearly blind in one eye, he never would have been permitted to play in the NHL.O'Ree retired from hockey in 1979. Seventeen years later, he returned to the NHL to become the director of the league's diversity program.O'Ree's Lasting Hockey LegacyAfter O'Ree quit playing hockey, it was more than a decade before black players became a permanent part of the league. Mike Marson began playing with the Washington Capitals in 1974, and it wasn't until Grant Fuhr began goaltending for the Edmonton Oilers in 1984 that a black player would win the Stanley Cup - the first of five for Fuhr. During the 2001-02 season with the Calgary Flames, Jarome Iginla became the first player to win the Most Valuable Player award.By becoming the first hockey player to break the color barrier, O'Ree has had a part in the success of each of the black players in the league. As "Jackie Robinson of hockey, " O'Ree's experience and the integration of black players into the NHL was largely uneventful, he has said, and very different from the experiences Jackie Robinson encountered."They called me the Jackie Robinson of hockey, " O'Ree told Mike Walsh, "but I didn't have the problems he had. I was never refused service at a hotel or restaurant, and I was accepted by my teammates."This article was originally published on Suite101.By Sandra Johnson - When it comes to the Olympic Games, Sandra Johnson is not only an authority, but also a longtime fan. She has worked for the United States Olympic Committee and she has covered three Olympic Games. In ad...  






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