Commentary

Fifty years later, O'Ree still teaching through sports

Updated: January 18, 2008, 5:50 PM ET
By David Amber | Special to ESPN.com

Willie O'Ree made hockey history on Jan. 18, 1958, by becoming the first black player to suit up for an NHL game.

His NHL résumé is a modest 45 games, including four goals and 10 assists, but O'Ree's legacy runs much deeper and his story is much greater.

This week the league celebrates the 50th anniversary of his historic debut, and in this week's Facing Off we go one-on-one with the hockey legend. O'Ree, 72, discusses the incredible secret he kept to ensure his NHL dream continued, explains how he survived years of physical and verbal abuse on the ice and why his love for the game lives on with thousands of kids across North America.

Question from David Amber: You are the youngest of 13 kids in your family. What was that like for you?

Answer from Willie O'Ree: It was great. Our parents encouraged all of us to play sports and to get an education. I played nine sports; I loved them all. But hockey was my first sport. I started skating when I was 3 years old. I would skate to school sometimes.

Q: You excelled at hockey, but were also a star in baseball. How good were you on the diamond?

A: I was pretty good. I had a tryout with the Milwaukee Braves' minor-league team in 1956 as a shortstop and second baseman.

Q: How was that experience?

A: I had to travel to Waycross, Ga., for the tryout, and then when I got there, the first thing I saw was a sign at the restrooms reading "whites only" and "colored only." Growing up in Canada, this was my first experience with segregation. I didn't feel very comfortable. I almost quit right there, but I stuck it out, even though my heart wasn't in it. Two weeks into the camp, I got cut and I had to travel by bus back to Fredericton [New Brunswick]. Naturally, at first in the South, I had to sit in the back of the bus because I was black. I wasn't accustomed to that; in Canada, I could sit anywhere I wanted to. As we made our way north, I moved around the bus accordingly. By the time we got to Bangor, Maine, I was up at the front of the bus. After that, I knew I would stick to hockey.

Q: What kind of racial issues did you have to deal with from the other players on the ice?

A: I heard all sorts of things pretty much every game. I knew if I wanted to make the NHL, I needed to forget about all that stuff and just play.

Q: How did you cope with all the abuse you took?

A: I never fought one time because of racial remarks. I fought because guys butt-ended me or cross-checked me or speared me, things of this nature. I fought because I had to, not because I wanted to. I knew I wouldn't do my team any good in the penalty box, but I had to defend myself as best I could.

Q: Is there any one incident that sticks out as the most alarming you faced?

A: Yeah, my first trip to the Chicago Stadium in 1961. The Hawks had this big, tough winger. He was about 6-foot-3 and really nasty. We had dumped the puck in and I was chasing it behind the net when he came up from behind and butt-ended me in the mouth. He knocked my two front teeth out, split my nose and split my lip. Then, he yelled a few racial slurs at me. I didn't care about what he said, but he just stood there and kind of just laughed, like I wasn't going to do anything about it. So, I got up and hit him with my stick. We got into a fight and both got thrown out. The crowd in Chicago was so shocked that I stood up for myself, that they had to put two policemen outside our dressing room where I was getting stitched up because they were worried there was going to be a riot.

Q: Did you ever think about quitting the game?

A: The only time I thought about quitting was that same night in Chicago. After getting thrown out, I was sitting alone in the dressing room, I turned the lights out and I just sat there and I kind of meditated for about five or six minutes. I said "Willie, you don't need this. Why don't you just go back to your hometown? You can play hockey there. You don't need all this abuse." And then, I turned the lights back on and said "No, the hell with it. If I'm going to leave the league, it's because I don't have the skills and the ability, not because of what other people do."

Q: It's amazing you even made the NHL considering the eye injury you suffered in 1955. What happened there?

A: I was playing for the Canadiens' farm team in Kitchener-Waterloo [Ontario]. A shot was deflected from the point and I was in front of the net. The defenseman spun me around and popped my head up to see where the puck was and it hit me flat in the right eye. Broke my nose, broke part of my cheek. I remember dropping down on the ice and I could feel the blood rushing down my face, but I was still conscious.

[+] EnlargeWillie O'Ree
Dave Sandford/Getty ImagesWillie O'Ree continues to work with the NHL to promote hockey to children.

Q: What did the doctors tell you?

A: I was in the hospital for more than a week. The doctor who operated on me came in and said "Mr. O'Ree, I'm sorry to inform you the impact of the puck completely shattered the retina in your right eye and you're going be blind and you'll never play hockey again." He was right. I was blind in my right eye, but he didn't know how I felt; he didn't know about the goals I set for myself and the dreams I had about playing professional hockey. So, I just told myself, "I'm going to prove this doctor wrong."

Q: You told only two people about your blindness and you swore them to secrecy. So, when you returned to the ice eight weeks later, everyone assumed your eye was fine?

A: Yeah, back then, they didn't have team eye exams. If the Bruins had found out that I was blind in one eye, they never would have let me play. I ended up playing 21 seasons of professional hockey, so I had to keep it a secret for a long time.

Q: What was it like in that first game back after the injury?

A: I was blinking a lot. I was skating down the ice and I couldn't see anything unless I turned my head all the way around. I would lose the puck in my skates a lot and miss some good scoring chances in close. It was tough at first.

Q: How scary was that?

A: It was really scary. We didn't wear helmets and I was worried I might get hit again and lose sight in my one good eye. But I just said, "Willie, forget about what you can't see and concentrate on what you can see." Basically, that's what I did. I just forgot about it.

Q: Describe the night you broke the NHL's color barrier.

A: The Bruins had a few injuries, so I got the call to join the team at the Montreal Forum to take on the Habs. I had played at the Forum a week earlier for the Quebec Aces, the pro team I was playing for in the Quebec Senior League. I was really excited to play. I was a little nervous my first shift, but I settled down afterwards. My parents came in from Fredericton for the game; my sister and some friends were there, too. It was a great game. We beat Montreal 3-0. It was a huge upset; we were last out of the six teams in the league and they were first. There wasn't much media attention. The big story was that we beat Montreal, not about me being the first black player in the league.

Q: How did the fans and players react to you?

A: They were great. No one said anything or did anything. They made me feel right at home. I was skating around and some fans were waving and others were pointing. I wasn't really thinking much about breaking the color barrier; but, before the game, Bruins coach Milt Schmidt and general manager Lynn Patrick sat down with me and told me they brought me up because they felt I was the type of player that could fit into the team's program and add a little spark. It meant a lot to me. They also told me I was the first player of my race to play in the NHL and not to worry about anything because the Bruins organization was 100 percent behind me.

Q: After you made your debut, you played only one more game that season. A few years later, you were called up again and stayed for most of the season. Seeing you night after night, did the abuse from fans change at all?

A: It got pretty bad. Not really in Toronto or Montreal, but in Detroit, Chicago and New York, some of the fans became quite violent. You know, in the penalty box, they would throw things at me. They would spit at me. I really had to have eyes in the back of my head because there wasn't a barrier like there is now in the penalty box, so fans could reach right in and grab me. I did all I could to protect myself, but it wasn't much fun getting stuff thrown at me.

Q: What do you remember about your first NHL goal?

A: [Laughs] Oh, what a night. It was New Year's Night in 1961 in Boston, and we were playing the Habs. Leo Boivin hits me with a perfect pass, I break down the boards, slip past one defenseman and come in all alone on Charlie Hodge, who was in net for Montreal because Jacques Plante was sick. Now, before the game, my teammate Bronco Horvath tells me, "Willie, if you get in on Hodge, keep it low, stay away from his glove and make sure to shoot it low." So, I'm in all alone on Hodge and what [Horvath] told me flashes through my mind -- keep it low, low, low. So, I blast one about an inch off the ice and it goes in just off the post. We went up 3-1. Later in the game, the Pocket Rocket [Henri Richard] scored to make it 3-2, but the goal I scored became the game winner, my first in the NHL.

Q: For the last decade, you have worked as the league's director for its diversity task force. What does that role require?

A: I travel around across North America and visit schools and run on-ice and off-ice clinics to promote the game to kids from all walks of life. We go to the inner city and try to teach hockey skills and life lessons, too. I always say to the kids, "Stay in school and get an education." If you decide you want to choose a sport as a career, you're only going to play it for so long, so you have to prepare yourself for that second phase of your life. I was fortunate to play 21 years as a pro, but not everyone will get that chance. For the kids today, there is so much opportunity for them, so they need to keep all their options open.

Q: Based on everything you've had to endure and the impact you've had on the game, shouldn't you be in the Hockey Hall of Fame?

A: [Laughs] I can't say I should be or I shouldn't. First of all, I didn't play that long in the NHL. Just because I broke the color barrier isn't enough; there has to be something more significant, I would say. I think if I get into the Hall of Fame, it will be for the work I am doing now with the diversity program. You know, the work I am doing now is more rewarding to me than breaking the color barrier. I love working with the kids; it is the most special job you can have.

ESPN reporter David Amber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.