Even if you’re not a baseball fan, the chances are high you have heard about Jackie Robinson. Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball when he started playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
However, have you ever heard of Willie O’Ree?
O’Ree, an African Canadian from New Brunswick, broke the color barrier in hockey when the Boston Bruins called him up in 1958. He played 45 games in the National Hockey League and many more in the minor leagues.
Then, after an illustrious career, he retired in 1980. That’s when the NHL forgot him.
Growing up in New Brunswick, O’Ree did not recall many instances of overt racism. He did find it strange that he had to get his haircut in a neighbor’s garage even though the man owned a barbershop in town.
When O’Ree asked if he could get his haircut in the barbershop, his neighbor agreed. Little did the young man know, at the time, his request changed the entire shop’s policy towards African Canadians.
O’Ree was a multi-sport athlete. Childhood friends thought he might end up playing professional baseball instead of hockey. In 1958, he was invited by the Milwaukee Braves for a tryout. The only problem was that the tryout was in Georgia.
Three years after the lynching of Emmit Till, O’Ree’s parents were terrified to let their son travel south. After much debate, O’Ree went to the tryout. In Georgia, he recalled seeing an unfamiliar world filled with personal bigotry and systemic racism. He was thankful when the Braves released him.
O’Ree was playing for the minor league Quebec Aces when the Bruins called. While playing in the NHL, O’Ree recalled moments when opponents and crowds used racial slurs.
However, in 1961, their racially charged rhetoric turned violent. The Bruins were playing the Chicago Blackhawks when one of the Blackhawk players, Eric Nesterenko, butt-ended O’Ree, knocking out his two front teeth. Nesterenko then started using racial slurs, further humiliating O’Ree.
The Bruin responded by hitting Nesterenko with his stick. Shortly after the incident, the Bruins traded O’Ree to the Montreal Canadiens, where he did not play one game. O’Ree claims the leadership of the Canadiens was prejudiced and refused to play him.
O’Ree returned to the minors, playing out his career for multiple teams before retiring in 1980. After retirement, O’Ree worked construction, sold cars, managed fast-food restaurants and worked for a private security company.
One of his favorite photos was with basketball legend Micheal Jordan at an event where O’Ree provided security. It makes one wonder if Jordan even knew who was standing beside him – a man who broke barriers that helped Jordan achieve all of his accomplishments.
For the next 16 years, he worked extremely hard to make ends meet. Then, in 1996, the NHL called, asking him to return to help launch their diversity program for the next generation of hockey players. In 2018, 60 years after he broke the color barrier, the NHL finally inducted him into the hall of fame.
This week, the Boston Bruins retired O’Ree’s number, 22, into the rafters of T.D. Garden, and the U.S. House of Representatives awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal. His life has been remembered and celebrated in an ESPN 30-for-30 documentary.
You need to know one last nugget of truth about this remarkable man. He accomplished all this while being blind in one eye.
While playing hockey as a young man, O’Ree was struck with a puck, leaving him blind in his right eye. He never told his doctors, parents, coaches or teammates because he knew they would make him stop playing the game he loved.
O’Ree now lives in San Diego, California, with his wife, and is inspiring the next generation of hockey players.
When I think about the Willie O’Ree’s of the world, I cannot help but recall all the unsung heroes in my life.
Often pushed back into our memories, we forget the importance of those quiet people who cared for, taught and loved us. From school cafeteria workers to moms coaching little league, these unsung heroes move us forward in life, while demonstrating humility and heroism.
On this day, let’s recall all of these unsung heroes in our lives and lift their jerseys into the banners of God’s cloud of witnesses.
CEO of Good Faith Media.