Willie O’Ree: Breaking the color line on ice

AJC Sepia Black History Month


We all know about Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 broke the Major League Baseball color line when he stepped onto the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

We know less about a Canadian named Willie O’Ree, who on Jan. 18, 1958, made his debut with the Boston Bruins, becoming the first black person to play in the National Hockey League.

The youngest of 13 children, O’Ree was born in 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Before he was called up, he had been playing on the Canadian minor league hockey circuit since 1950.

While it was obvious that O’Ree was black, what was less obvious was the fact that he was 95 percent blind in his right eye, having been struck by a puck in the eye. O’Ree managed to keep it secret throughout his career.

He played in only two games in 1958 before being sent back down.

He returned to the league in 1961 and scored four goals with 10 assists in 43 games for the Bruins. But that would be the last season he would play in the NHL. Unlike Robinson, O’Ree didn’t usher in a generation of black hockey players.

It would be 13 years after O’Ree left the league that another black player would follow him. And according to the NHL, there have only been a total of about 75 black players in the league.

Today, despite stars like P.K. Subban, Jarome Iginla and Dustin Byfuglien — and the legacy of hall of famers like Grant Fuhr and pioneers like O’Ree — blacks make up only about 5 percent of the players in the National Hockey League.

Celebrate Black History Month

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.



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