Breaking Hockey’s Color Barrier Sixty Years Ago

Willie O’Ree’s chance encounter with Jackie Robinson.

Posted Jan 19, 2018

As a baseball fan, I have always been aware of the sacrifices made by Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente, among others, in breaking down the color barriers of Major League Baseball. A picture of Jackie Robinson stealing home plate in 1952 hangs above me as I write this article. I find inspiration in the social complexities of the photo, and have kept this picture over my computer for every published article and book I have written as a professional.

This week marked the 60th anniversary of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) color barrier breaking. A player named Willie O’Ree played for the Boston Bruins that night in January of 1958. Though he did not go on to have a distinguished career as a player, he paved the way for other players of color to make their own paths to the NHL. Interestingly, at the time O’Ree was unaware of the social implications of his playing for the Bruins. He was simply excited, as any rookie would be who had just signed a new contract and was about to make their major league debut.

Over the course of his professional career, most of which was in minor league professional hockey, O’Ree endured his share of racial slurs. In an article in 2016, he discussed how he endured racial slurs his entire life, including recent stories of unfortunate encounters. After his playing career, O’Ree was employed for many years by the NHL, charged with a variety of diversity initiatives to promote hockey to minorities.

There has been discussion of including O’Ree in the Hockey Hall of Fame, not as a player, but as a “builder” who has grown and contributed to the game of hockey in a substantial way. Regardless of whether or not O’Ree is worthy of induction, we should continue to honor his efforts as a man who pursued his dream in his chosen profession when the color of his skin could have been an excuse to do something else.

As a kid in 1949, Willie O’Ree met Jackie Robinson, who had broken the Major League Baseball color barrier in 1947. Standing in the presence of the great man, O’Ree told him he loved hockey. Jackie Robinson replied, “I didn’t know black kids played hockey.” All that the child O’Ree replied back was, “Yup.”

Thirteen years later, after O’Ree broke the color barrier in the NHL, they met again at an event. Standing in the presence of the great man, Jackie Robinson said, “You’re the young fellow I met in Brooklyn.” Robinson remembered his encounter with the ambitious child.

Both men persevered in professional sports under challenging social circumstances. Both men made history. Both men inspired children, and the encounters of the two men with each other serve as reminders of just what impact any one person can have on the social fibers of our society.

References

Associated Press (2018, January 17). Willie O’Ree celebrates 60th anniversary of debut with Bruins. NBC Sports (online).

Bell, D. (2017, February 14). The NHL’s first black player, Willie O’Ree, had a short, but pathbreaking stint with the Boston Bruins. The Undefeated (online).

Blackburn, P. (2018, January 18). Why isn’t Willie O’Ree, who broke NHL’s color barrier 60 years ago, in Hall of Fame? CBS Sports.com (online).

O’Ree, W. (2016, January 1). The barrier. The Players’ Tribune (online).