Willie O'Ree

Willie Eldon O'Ree, CM ONB (born October 15, 1935) is a Canadian former professional ice hockey player, known best for being the first black player in the National Hockey League. O'Ree played as a winger for the Boston Bruins. O'Ree is referred to as the "Jackie Robinson of ice hockey" due to breaking the black colour barrier in the sport,[1][NB 1] and has stated publicly that he had met Jackie Robinson twice in his own younger years.[2][3] He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 2018.

Willie O'Ree
Hockey Hall of Fame, 2018 (Builder)
O'Ree in 2019
Born (1935-10-15) October 15, 1935
Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada
Height 5 ft 9 in (175 cm)
Weight 175 lb (79 kg; 12 st 7 lb)
Position Winger
Shot Left
Played for Boston Bruins
Playing career 19571979

Also in 2018, the NHL instituted the annual Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award[4] in his honour, to “recognize the individual who has worked to make a positive impact on his or her community, culture or society to make people better through hockey.”

Playing career

Midway through his second minor-league season with the Quebec Aces, O'Ree was called up to the Boston Bruins of the NHL to replace an injured player. O'Ree was blind in his right eye due to being hit there by an errant puck two years earlier,[5] which normally would have precluded him from playing in the NHL. However, O'Ree managed to keep it secret, and made his NHL debut with the Bruins on January 18, 1958,[5][6] against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first black player in league history. He played two games that year, with centreman Don McKenney and right wing Jerry Toppazzini as his linemates.[6] O'Ree came back in 1961 to play 43 games, and scored 4 goals and 10 assists in his NHL career, all in 1961.[7]

O'Ree noted that "racist remarks were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto and Montreal," the two Canadian cities hosting NHL teams at the time, and that "Fans would yell, 'Go back to the South' and 'How come you're not picking cotton?' Things like that. It didn't bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn't accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine."[8]

In the minor leagues, O'Ree won two scoring titles in the Western Hockey League (WHL) between 1961 and 1974, scoring thirty or more goals four times, with a high of 38 in 1964–65 and 1968–69. O'Ree played 50 games for the American Hockey League's New Haven Nighthawks in 1972–73. Most of O'Ree's playing time was with the WHL's Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls. The latter team retired his number, which now hangs from the rafters at Pechanga Arena, formerly known as the San Diego Sports Arena. O'Ree continued to play in the minors until the age of 43.[7]

Impact on hockey

After O'Ree's stint in the NHL, there were no other black players in the NHL until another Canadian player, Mike Marson, was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974. There were 23 black players in the NHL as of the mid-2010s, the most prominent being P. K. Subban. Art Dorrington was the first black player to sign an NHL contract, in 1950 with the New York Rangers organization, but never played beyond the minor league level. NHL players are now required to enroll in a preseason diversity training seminar,[9] and racially based verbal abuse is punished through suspensions and fines.[10]

From 1998 on, O’Ree has been the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador[11], traveling across North America to schools and hockey programs to promote messages of inclusion, dedication, and confidence.


O'Ree was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984. In 1998, O'Ree was working at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, California when the National Hockey League approached him to be the director of youth development for its diversity task force.[12] The NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force is a non-profit program for minority youth that encourages them to learn and play hockey. As of the mid-2000s, O'Ree lives in Berkeley, California.[13]

On the afternoon of January 19, 2008, the Bruins and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly honoured O'Ree at TD Garden in Boston to mark the 50th anniversary of his NHL debut. In addition, The Sports Museum of New England located in the TD Garden, established a special exhibit on O'Ree's career, comprising many items on loan from his personal collection.[14] Those in attendance included a busload of friends from O'Ree's hometown of Fredericton. Two days earlier, the City of Fredericton honoured him by naming a new sports complex on the North side after him.[15] Around the time of the 60th anniversary of O'Ree's contribution to ice hockey in early 2008, he was once again honored by the Bruins and the NHL, with a new street hockey rink in Boston named in his honor, one of many accolades with which the Bruins and NHL legend are involved.[16] On January 27, 2008, the NHL also honoured O'Ree during the 56th National Hockey League All-Star Game in Atlanta, Georgia. On February 5, 2008, ESPN did a special on him in honour of Black History Month.[17] On October 29, 2008, San Diego State University presented O'Ree with an Award for Outstanding Commitment to Diversity and Cross Cultural Understanding.[18] In 2008, O'Ree was also inducted by the San Diego Hall of Champions into the Breitbard Hall of Fame honouring San Diego's finest athletes both on and off the playing surface.[19]

The same year, O'Ree received the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award for a Canadian citizen. He was honoured as a pioneer of hockey and dedicated youth mentor in Canada along with the U.S.[20] On June 28, 2011, The Sports Museum at TD Garden in Boston honoured O'Ree with the Hockey Legacy Award at the 10th Annual "The Tradition." Other honourees that evening included Larry Bird, Mike Lowell, and Ty Law.[21] The Buffalo Sabres hosted a Willie O'Ree skills weekend in March 2012.[22] His jersey was retired by the San Diego Gulls on October 16, 2015.[23]

As the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals were about to start, the San Jose Sharks' Barbadian Canadian star right winger Joel Ward was preparing to play against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and told ESPN that O'Ree was one of his inspirations to play pro hockey, and should have his player number 22 retired by the NHL league-wide, just as Jackie Robinson, the first player of color in Major League Baseball has been honored. Ward himself honored Robinson's legacy through his last season in NHL play by wearing jersey number 42 in NHL play; Robinson's own player number 42 has been retired league-wide in pro baseball.[24]

On November 3, 2017, O'Ree was honoured with a banner by the Springfield Thunderbirds during a pregame ceremony to commemorate his time with the Springfield Indians.[25]

A more personal honor for O'Ree was arranged by John Grzelcyk, father of current Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk. A long-time member of the Boston Garden and TD Garden "bull-gang" team of arena personnel that assists with "changeovers" for different events at each facility, the senior Grzelcyk had saved an original number 22 Bruins uniform jersey worn by O'Ree from the 1960-61 Boston Bruins season, when O'Ree last played in the NHL as a Bruin. Both Grzelcyks personally presented the jersey to O'Ree, to honor him for his time with the Bruins and the NHL.[26] At about the same time as O'Ree received his vintage Bruins game-sweater, it became known that Madison Bowey, a then-Washington Capitals rookie of bi-racial ethnicity, had been taught by his Black Canadian father about O'Ree's importance in NHL history, and selected 22 as his number with the Capitals to honor O'Ree's achievement.[27]

On June 26, 2018 it was announced that O'Ree would be inducted as a Builder into the Hockey Hall of Fame later that year.[28][29][30]

Almost ten months after receiving his original Bruins sweater from the Grzelycks, on November 1, 2018 O'Ree attended the ceremonial dedication of a street hockey rink named in his honor in the Boston neighborhood of Allston, as part of the continuing legacy of O'Ree's time with the Bruins.[31]

By early May of 2019, following O'Ree's Builder honor with the Hockey Hall of Fame the previous year, a bill in the 116th U.S. Congress is authorizing the award of the United States Congressional Gold Medal for O'Ree's achievements "in recognition of his contributions and commitment to hockey, inclusion, and recreational opportunity."[32]


Career statistics


    Regular season   Playoffs
Season Team League GP G A Pts PIM GP G A Pts PIM
1950–51Fredericton FalconsNBAHA ????? 20004
1951–52Fredericton MerchantsYCHL 6104142 81051518
1951–52Fredericton Jr. CapitalsNBJHL 32020
1952–53Fredericton Jr. CapitalsNBJHL 12153186 45052
1952–53Fredericton CapitalsNBSHL 22020
1953–54Fredericton CapitalsNBSHL 237111815 2515102510
1954–55Quebec FrontenacsQJHL 4327174441 17761310
1955–56Kitchener CanucksOHA-Jr. 4130285838 84376
1956–57Quebec AcesQHL 6822123480 1533610
1957–58Boston BruinsNHL 20000
1957–58Springfield IndiansAHL 60000
1957–58Quebec AcesQHL 5713193243 94268
1958–59Quebec AcesQHL 569213074
1959–60Kingston FrontenacsEPHL 5021254641
1960–61Boston BruinsNHL 434101426
1960–61Hull-Ottawa CanadiensEPHL 161091921
1961–62Hull-Ottawa CanadiensEPHL 1212318
1961–62Los Angeles BladesWHL 5428265457
1962–63Los Angeles BladesWHL 6425265141 32352
1963–64Los Angeles BladesWHL 6017183545 12481210
1964–65Los Angeles BladesWHL 7038215975
1965–66Los Angeles BladesWHL 6233336630
1966–67Los Angeles BladesWHL 6834266058
1967–68San Diego GullsWHL 6621335454 72246
1968–69San Diego GullsWHL 7038417963 733612
1969–70San Diego GullsWHL 6624224650 66394
1970–71San Diego GullsWHL 6618153347 641514
1971–72San Diego GullsWHL 4816173342 40112
1972–73New Haven NighthawksAHL 5021244541
1972–73San Diego GullsWHL 18651118 61452
1973–74San Diego GullsWHL 7330285889 43360
1974–75San Diego CharmsSoCal-Sr. ????? ?????
1975–76San Diego CharmsSoCal-Sr. ????? ?????
1978–79San Diego HawksPHL 5321254637
NHL totals (2 seasons) 454101426
WHL totals (13 seasons) 785328311639669 5525285352
QHL totals (3 seasons) 181445296197 19751218
EPHL totals (3 seasons) 7832366880


  1. Larry Kwong first broke the NHL's colour barrier in 1948, being ethnic Chinese, a decade before O'Ree's debut in 1958, O'Ree was the first black player in the NHL.


  1. Playing days at end, Grier looks for new goals – Sports – The Boston Globe
  2. Steve Murphy, interviewer with CTV News in Halifax, NS (2007). Willie O'Ree – First Black NHL Player (YouTube). heathernocs. Event occurs at 4:31. Retrieved August 8, 2013.
  3. Russo, Eric (January 17, 2018). "O'Ree A Vital Part of Hockey History". nhl.com/bruins. National Hockey League. Retrieved January 19, 2018. Willie O'Ree first met Jackie Robinson when he was just 14 years old...The New Brunswick native was in New York for a trip honoring his youth baseball team and managed to carve out a few minutes to chat with the legend by the dugout during a visit to Ebbets Field. O'Ree made sure to inform Robinson that in addition to his baseball accomplishments, he was also a hockey player...Robinson was a bit surprised, not realizing that any black kids played hockey. It was an interaction that proved to be a memorable one...Some 13 years later during an NAACP luncheon in Los Angeles, the two once again crossed paths. Following an introduction, Robinson – the first black player in Major League Baseball history – quickly realized that it was not their first encounter..."'Willie O'Ree – aren't you the young fella I met in Brooklyn?" Robinson asked...It was a moment that O'Ree cherishes to this day – and one he felt important to share during a celebration marking the 60th Anniversary of his breaking the NHL's color barrier.
  4. https://www.nhl.com/fans/willie-oree-community-hero-award
  5. Takahama, Elise (January 28, 2018). "Jan. 18 is officially Willie O'Ree Day, in honor of the first black NHL player". Boston Globe. Retrieved January 17, 2019.
  6. Stubbs, Dave (January 18, 2017). "Willie O'Ree made history in 1958 debut with Bruins". NHL.com. Retrieved January 17, 2019.
  7. "Willie O'Ree hockey statistics and profile at hockeydb.com". www.hockeydb.com. Retrieved January 31, 2017.
  8. McGourty, John (January 15, 2007). "O'Ree a hockey pioneer". NHL.com. Retrieved June 9, 2015.
  9. Thompson, Harry (2013). "Equal Ice: Diversity in Hockey". USA Hockey Magazine. USA Hockey. Retrieved January 31, 2017.
  10. Donnellon, Sam (November 26, 1997). "Racism in sports thorny issue". Edmonton Journal. Knight-Ridder Newspapers. ProQuest 252493527.
  11. https://www.nhl.com/community/hockey-is-for-everyone/ambassadors
  12. Sports Illustrated, July 14–21, purple, p. 78, vol 109, No. 2, Time Inc.
  13. Fiztherbert, Corinne (February 9, 2011). "Willie O'Ree to preside over 2011 World Pond Hockey Championships". The Victoria Star. Grand Falls, N.B. ProQuest 851206293.
  14. "New England sports museum unveils O'Ree exhibit". ESPN. Associated Press. January 19, 2008. Retrieved February 17, 2008.
  15. Smith, Roger (January 19, 2008). "Hockey pioneer honoured in the U.S. and Canada". CTV. Archived from the original on January 29, 2008. Retrieved February 15, 2008.
  16. Russo, Eric (January 17, 2018). "O'Ree A Vital Part of Hockey History". nhl.com/bruins. National Hockey League. Retrieved February 2, 2018. On Wednesday, [January 17th] during a press conference dedicating a new street hockey rink in his honor, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said O'Ree deserves to be in the same historical category as Robinson and President Barack Obama..."Willie means a great deal to our city," said Walsh. "This is history in the living right here…it's an incredible message to our young people. When I talked to the young people in the front row [of the press conference] – everyone knows Jackie Robinson, everyone knows Barack Obama, everyone in Boston knows Willie O'Ree, but I think his story needs to be told around the country... "It's a great honor to be here, an honor to hear him speak about what he's done."
  17. Rosen, Dan (January 19, 2008). "NHL pioneer O'Ree honored by Bruins". NHL.com. Retrieved January 30, 2008.
  18. "Pioneering NHL Player Visits SDSU", SDSUniverse, October 20, 2008
  19. "Willie O'Ree bio page". NHL.com. Retrieved January 31, 2017.
  20. "O'Ree receives Order of Canada", NHL.com, April 7, 2010.
  21. Auerbach, Nicole (June 28, 2011). "O'Ree scores in NHL's effort to diversify hockey". The Boston Globe. Retrieved July 7, 2015.
  22. Harper, Davis (February 16, 2012). "Sabres to host Willie O'Ree Skills Weekend". nhl.com. Retrieved February 20, 2018.
  23. Kenney, Kirk (September 17, 2015). "San Diego Gulls honoring Willie O'Ree". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved February 20, 2018.
  24. Douglas, William (May 30, 2016). "Joel Ward thinks the NHL should honor Willie O'Ree by retiring his number". colorofhockey.com. The Color of Hockey. Retrieved May 31, 2016. Joel Ward has an idea for the National Hockey League to honor the history and growing impact of black players in the sport: Retire the number 22 Willie O'Ree wore with the Boston Bruins when he became the league's first black player in 1958."I definitely think Willie should be recognized for sure," Ward told ESPN Sunday, the media day before his San Jose Sharks face the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. "It's a no-brainer. Without Willie, it would be tough for me to be sitting here today. I definitely think Willie should be a big part of this."
  25. "Springfield Thunderbirds to honor hockey legend Willie O'Ree at "Hockey Is For Everyone" Night on Nov. 3". masslive.com. Retrieved April 21, 2018.
  26. Benjamin, Amalie (January 25, 2018). "O'Ree warmed by gift of old sweater from Bruins' Grzelcyk". nhl.com. National Hockey League. Retrieved February 6, 2018. The sweater had been hanging in the Grzelcyk house for years, just another jersey from the Boston Bruins, a castoff. It had been found abandoned by a trainer, John Grzelcyk believed, perhaps 35 years ago, long after its useful life, and given to him...At some point, Matt Grzelcyk, John's son and a Boston Bruins defenseman, had started to suspect the history of the small-ish black jersey from the early 1960s, No. 22, that hung in the back of a closet...On Jan. 17 [2018], the sweater finally made its way back to its rightful owner, 60 years after Willie O'Ree made his barrier-shattering debut in the National Hockey League, as the first black player to play in the League.
  27. Dougherty, Jesse (January 18, 2018). "Capitals rookie Madison Bowey honors NHL pioneer Willie O'Ree by wearing No. 22". washingtonpost.com. The Washington Post. Retrieved June 10, 2018. Madison Bowey always wore No. 22 on the baseball field growing up, but it was taken whenever he joined a hockey team...That was the case as the defenseman turned himself into an NHL prospect and joined the Capitals' system as a second-round pick in 2013. The number was taken again as he proved himself in the American Hockey League. But No. 22 was available when he was called up to the Capitals at the start of this season..."It's pretty special to be in the NHL and playing my first NHL year on the 60th anniversary of Willie O'Ree," Bowey said Thursday. "There's a lot of significance behind that, and obviously he's a very special person."
  28. "Bruins Legend Willie O'Ree To Be Inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame". nhl.com/bruins. Boston Bruins. June 26, 2018. Retrieved June 26, 2018. The Hockey Hall of Fame announced today, June 26, that they will induct Bruins legend Willie O'Ree into the Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2018. O'Ree was selected as part of the "Builder" category, which is defined by "coaching, managerial or executive ability, or ability in another significant off-ice role, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general." He is the seventh member of the Boston Bruins to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as part of the "Builder" category.
  29. Whyno, Stephen (June 26, 2018). "Willie O'Ree, Martin Brodeur, Gary Bettman top Hockey Hall of Fame class | The Star". thestar.com. Toronto Star. Retrieved June 26, 2018.
  30. "Willie O'Ree, NHL's 1st black player, gets Hall of Fame call | CBC Sports". CBC. Retrieved June 28, 2018.
  31. Russo, Eric (November 1, 2018). "Willie O'Ree Community Rink Dedicated in Allston". nhl.com/bruins. BostonBruins.com. Retrieved November 2, 2018. While snow banks and trash barrels can make for some fun props, the children of Allston won't have to worry anymore about building a makeshift street hockey rink or clearing the road for passing cars...That's because on Thursday the Bruins helped to unveil the brand new Willie O'Ree Community Street Hockey Rink at Smith Playground. O'Ree was joined by Chara, Bergeron, Bruins president Cam Neely, Boston Bruins Foundation Executive Director Bob Sweeney, and NHL Director of Social Impact, Growth, and Fan Development and former Bruin Andrew Ference for the dedication.
  32. "H.R.2504 - Willie O'Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act". congress.gov. United States Congress. May 2, 2019. Retrieved August 19, 2019. This bill directs the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President pro tempore of the Senate to arrange for the award of a Congressional Gold Medal to Willie O'Ree, in recognition of his contributions and commitment to hockey, inclusion, and recreational opportunity.
  33. "Willie Eldon O'Ree". Legends of Hockey. Hockey Hall of Fame. Retrieved January 16, 2018.
  34. Stevens, Neil (January 17, 2008). "Groundbreaking NHL debut still vivid for O'Ree". Niagara Falls Review. Niagara Falls, Ontario. Archived from the original on January 18, 2015. Retrieved January 17, 2015.
  35. "First black NHL player honoured with Order of Canada". CTV News. Archived from the original on December 31, 2008. Retrieved December 30, 2008.
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