Willie O'Ree on Breaking the NHL Color Barrier

Fifty years ago this month, black athlete Willie O'Ree took to the ice for the Boston Bruins. It was a decade after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. O'Ree also skated with a secret that would have barred him from playing professional hockey. He could only see through one eye.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, why violent movies may actually reduce crime, at least for a couple of hours.

But first, 50 years ago this month, Willie O'Ree took the ice for the Boston Bruins and became the first black player in the National Hockey League. It was over a decade after Jackie Robinson have broken baseball's color barrier, but it was a full two years before the Boston Red Sox baseball team signed its first African-American player. Next week, the Boston Bruins will host a Willie O'Ree night to honor the 50th anniversary of his first game.

Willie O'Ree joins us from Berkeley, California.

Mr. O'Ree, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. WILLIE O'REE (Former Ice Hockey Player, Boston Bruins): Well, it certainly is a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: What was it like 50 years ago when you took the ice for a black player in the NHL?

Mr. O'REE: It was rough going. And not when I was playing in Montreal or Toronto, but when I went to the states, in Chicago, in Detroit and in New York, you know, I experienced the racial slurs and remarks that were directed towards me. But, you know, I had geared myself up for that and I told my self, Willie, you're a black man and be proud of who you are. Just go out and play hockey and try to represent the hockey club to the best of your ability.

SIMON: You grew up in New Brunswick, right?

Mr. O'REE: Fredericton, yes, my hometown.

SIMON: You grew up with a hockey stick in your hand?

Mr. O'REE: Yes. I started skating at the age of 2. My dad made a rink for me in my backyard. I remember skating and pushing a chair with a double rollerblades on. And at the age of 5, I started playing organized hockey. And when I was 14, I decided I want to be a professional hockey player.

SIMON: Mr. O'Ree, may I ask, when you were growing up, did anyone ever say to you, you can't play in the NHL because you're black?

Mr. O'REE: Yes. I had some people tell me that. But I set my goal. I just worked hard, hoping, you know, one day I get that opportunity. I played junior hockey for two years. My last year playing junior, I had an unfortunate accident. I was playing on the ice. I'm in front of the net and the puck struck me in the right eye and I was operated on. I'm in my recovery room and the doctor comes in and says, Mr. O'Ree, as I'm sorry to inform you, the impact of the puck completely shattered the retina in your right eye and you're going to be blind and you'll never play hockey again.

SIMON: I have been told this and I find this just about the most remarkable feature of your story. A lot of people lying in that hospital bed would have said, well, there goes that, you can't play hockey with just one eye.

Mr. O'REE: You know, I kind of slumped back in my hospital bed and I said to myself, gosh, what am I going to do, you know, the dreams that I had and the goals that I had set for myself? So I got out of the hospital. I was out of commission for about eight weeks. And I started back skating again. And I was a left hand shot, playing left wing. So to compensate, I had to turn my head all the way around to the right to pick the puck up with my left eye because I couldn't see out of my right eye. You know, the 21 years I played professional, I played with one eye.

SIMON: Our researchers instruct me that in the 90-year history of the National Hockey League, only 40 players have been black. That's a small and distinctive number, isn't it?

Mr. O'REE: Small, yes. But everybody says, well, why have there be more black players? You have to take in the consideration the geographical and where you're born. I mean, I was born in Canada. I had the availability of ice every day. I skated to school. There were ponds, lakes, rivers, creeks that you could skate on. The more rinks that are going to be constructed is going to make it possible for more kids to get that opportunity.

Hockey is a very unique sport. I mean, you could take a basketball and you could even dribble in this room, or you could take a soccer ball and kick it around. You can take a football and make some passes. But hockey, you need to get on the ice. You need to develop your skills that are on the ice. And if you don't get on the ice, you won't become a hockey player. I predict that there's going to be more, not only black players, but players of color coming into the league in the upcoming years.

SIMON: Thanks so much, Mr. O'Ree, and happy Willie O'Ree night next week.

Mr. O'REE: Well, thank you very much. A pleasure.

SIMON: Willie O'Ree, who was the NHL's first black player. His first game was 50 years ago this month.

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