Willie O'Ree, hockey trailblazer, addresses assembly

Hall-of-Famer shares story of becoming NHL’s first Black player with Exeter students.

Adam Loyd
January 18, 2022
Willie O'Ree

When the sharpened blades of Willie O’Ree’s skates met the sheet of ice inside the hallowed Montreal Forum in January of 1958, the hard-checking winger from Fredericton, New Brunswick, achieved his life’s goal of playing in the National Hockey League as a member of the Boston Bruins.

It wasn’t until later that the then 22-year-old would begin to comprehend the magnitude of the moment not only for himself, but for the league, the sport of hockey and the generations players that would follow.

“I didn’t realize at the time that I had broken the color barrier in the National Hockey League — that there had never been a Black player,” he told Assembly. 

Like Jackie Robinson, who a decade earlier broke Major League Baseball’s color line, O’Ree’s presence in his sport drew jeers from opposing players and fans.

“I never fought because of racial remarks because I knew I’d be in the penalty box all the time if I did,” he said. “I just let it go in one ear and out the other.”

Racial prejudice wasn’t the only adversity O’Ree overcame during his career. As a junior player he was struck in the face with a puck causing the loss of sight in his right eye. Fearing his disability would prevent him from getting a shot at the pros, he kept the extent of his injury a secret.

“I just said, forget about what you can't see and concentrate on what you can see,” he said.

During his 20-year professional hockey career, O’Ree played in just 45 contests across two seasons at the game’s highest level, but his impact on the sport and the NHL continues decades later. After hanging up the skates, O’Ree began working with league as an ambassador for NHL’s Diversity Program. His “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative seeks to bring the game to underserved communities across North America.

“We won't turn any boy or girl away. If they want learn how to skate, we'll have them learn how to skate. If they want to play hockey and get into an organized hockey program, that's our job.”

Following the presentation members of Exeter’s hockey program, Akili Tulloch ‘22 and Manan Mendiratta ’22, moderated a Q&A session where O’Ree addressed the state of diversity in the NHL today.

“The game is so much better than it was, it’s opened up to not only Black players, but all players of color,” he said. “There are approximately 40 players of color playing in the league now.”

O’Ree’s Assembly appearance came on the eve of MLK Day weekend which featured a series of events including the student-produced variety show, “UnSilenced," and a keynote address from Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyema.

The Bruins will honor O’Ree by retiring his jersey number in a ceremony on Jan. 18.