History On Ice: The Willie O’Ree Story

When discussing black icons and trailblazers in the world of sports, one person always seems to be forgotten. That man is Willie O’Ree, a man who changed the game of hockey forever simply by playing it. While O’Ree was never the best player on the ice, his impact in the hockey and sports world overall is something that cannot be overlooked. 

Willie O’Ree with the Boston Bruins in 1960. (AP Photo) (AP)

On Jan. 18, 1958, Willie O’Ree made history by becoming the first black man to play in a National Hockey League (NHL) game, doing so for the Boston Bruins and overcoming the struggle of racism and prejudice in the process. For breaking the color barrier in the NHL, he has been referred to as “the Jackie Robinson of hockey.” He played just two games in the 1958 season, but returned to the Bruins for the 1960-61 season. He would go on to play 43 games that year and would become the first black man to score a goal and record an assist in an NHL game. Unfortunately, 1961 would be the last time O’Ree would play a game in the NHL. He finished his career with four goals and ten assists in 45 games, all with the Boston Bruins. He would go on to have an illustrious career in the Western Hockey League (WHL), recording 328 goals and 311 assists in 785 games with the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls. O’Ree retired from hockey in 1979, but it would not be the last hockey fans saw of him in the hockey community.  

Since retiring from hockey, Willie O’Ree has continued to promote equality as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador.

Since his retirement, O’Ree has dedicated his time to sharing his experiences with racism as well as helping spread messages of equality. In 1998, Willie O’Ree was chosen to be the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, a role that he continues to serve today. As the league’s Diversity Ambassador, he travels around North America to promote racial equality, inclusion, and self-confidence to children and young adults as well as introduce them to the game of hockey. For his history making achievement, O’Ree was given the Order of Canada in 2008 and inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018. Additionally, in 2022, the Boston Bruins will be retiring O’Ree’s number 22, meaning that no Bruins player will ever wear that number again. While Willie O’Ree only had a brief NHL career, his impact on the league and the sport of hockey overall is unmatched, making him a true underappreciated black icon.