February was black history month. There are untold stories that we missed due to time culture and even racism. Some stories were told just not given the attention they deserved. The story is about a Canadian that received recognition but not as high profile as it should have been.
This story is one of human triumph not just a footnote from the sports world. Sports has been both a beacon on the hill and a dark series of more sinister thoughts hidden away in the basement of collective dark minds. We’ve all heard of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball or Professional boxer Joe Louis. In 1959 Bill Wright broke the Pro Golf color barrier and in basketball it was Earl Lloyd in 1950. Until recently professional hockey almost forgot its hero who blazed the trail for players of color. Some have said hockey is the white mans sport and always has been. I am happy to say that assessment is no longer the case.
As I started to refresh my memory about a man I will introduce yo to, I realized just how narrow the blazed trail was and how steep the climb was. He endured racial slurs, racial taunts, death threats, and unfair expectations. Hockey was both cruel and kind to this man who if not should be championed as a genuine hero not just for sport but as a member of society.
At first he was overlooked, but true talent eventually shines through. Not only was he a solid performer he hid a secret that would have crippled his career. A hockey puck struck him and left him blind in one eye. Yes he played in the old days of the Rocket and Gordie Howe . He was conspicuous by his presence when in 1958 he stepped on the ice in a Boston Bruin Uniform.
Yes number 22 played with and against the best of his time. He played for Boston and later was traded to the Montreal Canadians. The Habs traded him into the professional Western Hockey League. Ironically Boston’s number 22 played pro hockey for 22 seasons retiring in 1980.
That’s not the end of the story he went on to encourage, coach and mentor hundreds of kids especially children of color introducing them to the sport he loves.
Take a pause here, and think, we remember Bobby Orr, the brothers Richard, Wayne the great one, even Jerome Iginla,
but how many would say. “I remember Willie O’Ree?” He is a Canadian, he has been honored with the Order of Canada. He has been inducted into the Hockey Hall Of Fame and his Boston Bruin number 22 has been retired by the team. The stellar part of Willie O’Ree’s career is he is still introducing the love of hockey and the principals of sportsmanship to young children at the age of 85.
There are so many strange and unruly people in sport and in the general public and we know them by their misdeeds and attitudes. Yet a man with the ethical and moral courage of Superman goes by almost unnoticed. Then consider true greatness often comes with humility. Next time you are talking about great achievements in hockey history remember Boston’s number 22 Willie O’Ree, who blazed the trail for the players of color in the NHL that we are so familiar with today. The only sad part of this story or even this article is there had to be a mention of a color barrier at all.