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.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Free summer meals available for students
Free summer meals available for students

Free meals are available to students in Fayette, Coweta, Clayton and Henry Counties over the summer to take the place of free lunches offered during the school year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture coordinates the program, which is open to all children age 18 and under. South metro locations include the Fayette Recreation Center at 980 Redwine Road...
Commission approves project for Thankful Baptist parking lot
Commission approves project for Thankful Baptist parking lot

On May 21 Decatur’s commission approved zoning that paves the way for a small mixed-use project on the east side parking lot of Thankful Baptist Church. Covering 1.15 of Thankful’s total 3.7 acres, the project would include four live-work town homes facing College Avenue, the ground floor having the option of a single-proprietor type business...
Cherokee OKs lease of Yellow Creek fire station
Cherokee OKs lease of Yellow Creek fire station

The Cherokee County Board of Commissioners has approved a lease agreement with the MICA Community Fire Department for its Yellow Creek community fire station near Ball Ground. Cherokee County Fire and Emergency Services uses the fire house at 5804 Yellow Creek Road as its station No. 15. “Approval of this agreement will allow CCFES to continue...
Duluth will replace wooden bridge railings at Bunten Park
Duluth will replace wooden bridge railings at Bunten Park

The wooden bridge railings at Bunten Road Park at 3180 Bunten Road in Duluth were designed in 1998 and have now decayed, having surpassed their life expectancy. The Duluth City Council recently agreed with staff recommendations to remove the wooden railings and replace then with new metal railings similar to the bridge railings installed at the W.P...
Woodstock OKs $89K Rope Mill drainage project
Woodstock OKs $89K Rope Mill drainage project

The Woodstock City Council has approved an $89,785 contract to improve storm water drainage on both sides of Rope Mill Road near Woodstock Elementary School and the city water tower property. The contractor, M.D. Residential LLC, is tasked with solving a deteriorating embankment by installing a retaining wall; rehabilitating storm drains and catch...
More Stories