San Diego’s Willie O’Ree broke NHL color barrier, charted path to hockey Hall (2024)

It’s the ultimate icy wrong, righted. Something miles overdue, painfully tardy but addressed. A thorny puck ledger, finally squared.

When the 2018 selections for the Hockey Hall of Fame were announced Tuesday during a live stream by Canadian broadcaster TSN, an analyst voiced what many were thinking when talk turned to former San Diego Gull and stick-and-skate trailblazer Willie O’Ree.

He’s not in already?

How many times can someone say they toppled perceptions or meaningfully altered the course of what’s possible? How often does a person truly shape and steer generations?

O’Ree, a blur on skates who overcame racism and 98 percent blindness in one eye to become hockey’s Jackie Robinson, somehow found a way to impact hockey even more profoundly by bringing the game into uncharted territory — the heart of America’s inner cities.

The man who grew up in Canada’s New Brunswick province, guided by hockey to a life in sunny San Diego, has crisscrossed the continent for more than two decades as the NHL’s diversity ambassador. From Harlem to Oakland and too many points to count in between, O’Ree preaches a gospel of patience and power plays.

If you stacked up all of O’Ree’s travel time end to end, it’s estimated to add up to a staggering six years. Youth programs under his influence, according to the NHL, impacts more than 120,000 kids.

First, talented. Then, tireless.

All in the name of a game that repeatedly exposed him to the n-word, a refusal of service in a Baltimore restaurant, and street taunts from strangers in Boston. The love of the game ultimately drowned out the outside anger and ignorance.

“When I got the initial call,” O’Ree, 82, told the Union-Tribune, “I was kind of at a loss for words.”

On Jan. 18, 1958, O’Ree shattered hockey’s color barrier as a member of the Boston Bruins. It would be a stunning 16 years before the second black player, Mike Marson, stepped onto NHL ice. Today, there are 25.

O’Ree was Robinson, without baseball’s commanding spotlight.

Though he played just two games as a winger for the Bruins in ’58 and 43 more in 1960-61, the significance resonated.

“The best word I would use is ‘hope,’ ” said NBC hockey analyst Anson Carter, when asked to gauge O’Ree’s impact. “I know what I had to go through, as a black hockey player growing up in Toronto, and some of the things I had to overcome and deal with and had to think about, Willie came through at a much earlier time than I did.

“I can only imagine what he had to deal with. He dealt with it and he handled it with class. He gave players like myself hope and knowing that, if Willie can do it, I can certainly do it.”

In 11 NHL seasons through 2007, Carter played 674 games with the Caps, Bruins, Oilers, Rangers, Kings, Canucks, Blue Jackets and Hurricanes. The racist, hateful phone calls on the road became so prevalent that he checked into hotels with an alias only shared with family and his closest friends.

Turn back the clock a half-century and Carter marvels at how O’Ree navigated it all.

“For players like myself, we didn’t see his impact on the game any less than what Jackie Robinson had,” Carter said.

O’Ree met the Brooklyn Dodgers icon Robinson — not once, but twice.

The first time came when he was 14, when a baseball team he played on in Fredericton, New Brunswick, was rewarded with a trip to New York in 1949 after winning a championship. O’Ree shook hands with Robinson at Ebbets Field.

When O’Ree mentioned he also played hockey, a jarred Robinson said he didn’t realize black kids played.

“Yeah,” O’Ree told the Boston Globe. “There’s a few.”

Fast-forward to 1962, while O’Ree played minor-league hockey for the Western Hockey League’s Los Angeles Blades. Robinson was in town for an NAACP luncheon. O’Ree and a couple teammates were invited to attend.

Eventually, Robinson made his way over to the young players.

“(Robinson) put up his finger and said, ‘Willie O’Ree … aren’t you the young fella I met in Brooklyn?” O’Ree told the Globe. “… That made a big impact. I mean, isn’t that something? When you think of the millions of people he met over the years.”

The fact that O’Ree played at hockey’s highest level at all — especially in an era with just six teams and dizzying competition for limited roster spots — is even more amazing because of his vision issues.

A slapshot during junior hockey in 1954 left him legally blind in his right eye. For a left-handed, left-winger, it meant turning his head unnaturally to survey the ice with his good eye. O’Ree kept the limitation a job-security secret.

“Unfortunately, when I played there were no visors, no cages, nothing to protect your face or head,” O’Ree said. “If they found out, I wouldn’t be able to play professional hockey.”

Bruins Hall of Famer Johnny Bucyk said what O’Ree overcame — and what he’s given back — make him singular.

“Willie was a fast skater with a good shot,” Bucyk told the U-T. “And we didn’t know at that point, that he only had one eye. Then he did a lot for hockey. And he’s still doing it.”

Carter, the NBC analyst, said the commitment to youth hockey is what cinched the selection of O’Ree in the Hall’s “builder” category.

“I think Wayne Gretzky was really the guy who was the seed who planted that in L.A. and we saw the southwest explosion of hockey with the L.A. Kings and the hype Wayne brought,” Carter said. “But Wayne’s not traveling from coast to coast on planes going to hockey schools.

“If Wayne’s the seed, I say Willie is the water that helps it grow.”

O’Ree eventually was signed to a $6,200, one-year contract with the Gulls in 1967. He stayed on Leland Street, just blocks from the old (but still current) Sports Arena. When he retired in 1979, he made the hockey destination home — and has lived in La Mesa for the last 30 years.

In San Diego, O’Ree worked construction, sold cars in Mission Valley, managed a sporting goods department and more. He was employed in security for the Hotel Del Coronado when the NHL called about making him the face of its diversity push.

Now, he’s poised to become a Hall of Famer.

“A lot of people said it’s long overdue, but I’m very, very happy,” O’Ree said.

Rare patience, from a rare man.; Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

San Diego’s Willie O’Ree broke NHL color barrier, charted path to hockey Hall (2024)
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