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Walling: O'Ree finally getting his due

Alex J. Walling
1/15/2008 1:11:13 PM
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There's a lot more commotion this week over Willie O'Ree than there was 50 years ago this Friday night when he broke the colour barrier in the National Hockey League.

O'Ree has been called the Jackie Robinson of hockey, and rightly so. It's interesting to note the Montreal connection in both athletes.  Robinson played for the Montreal Royals before being called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers, and O'Ree also made his breakthrough in Montreal. That took place on January 18, 1958 when he skated on the Montreal Forum ice against the Canadiens on a Saturday night.

There are many facts about the first two games for Willie O'Ree and the first is that it simply, unlike Robison's pro debut, was not a big deal at the time.

"The racial situation with Robinson and baseball compared to hockey in Canada were totally two different situations," O'Ree recently told me. "The USA was racially charged, at least some areas were, and it wasn't a factor in the locations of the Quebec Senior league, where I played."

He also feels that so few people took notice because in Montreal it wasn't a big deal and he only played two games, back-to-back, so not much could be or was written on it.

"I played in Montreal on the Saturday night, January 15, 1958 and in Boston, the 16th, the next night and came back to the minors," he told TSN.ca.  "It's not like I outscored the "Rocket" and "Boom Boom" (Geoffrion).

The minors were Quebec City and trips to such places as Shawinigan, Chicoutimi, Montreal, and other centers in the Quebec Senior Hockey League.

He played for the Quebec Aces and was part of my first taste of hockey.  You see, Quebec City is my home town and I lived in St. Albert le Grand, in Quebec City, which is but a few streets away from Le Colisee.

I was about 10 years old and was allowed to take in the Sunday afternoon games. It was very hard not to notice O'Ree. He, of course, was black and that by itself was a rarity - even in the minor league levels. That being said, O'Ree was not the only black player in the Aces line-up.  He played on a line with his good friend, another black man, Stan Maxwell from Truro, Nova Scotia.

"Stan was also a very good player and we got along and played very well together," is what he told TSN.ca.

The Bruins owned O'Ree's rights and they made the call to him mid-week and I remember asking O'Ree why he got the call, since he was nowhere near the team's leading scorer.

"They didn't call me to score," he said, "but they needed a third line checking winger and that is why I got the call."

The fact that O'Ree was even playing in with the Quebec Aces is amazing, as he had earlier lost the sight in one eye playing in the Memorial Cup with Kitchener when he was struck in the face by a puck.

Yes, he was a one-eyed hockey player. So how was he allowed to play?

"The accident took place in the spring and when I went to Quebec most people, if not all, thought the injury had healed. I was on the ice, skating, shooting, etc.  But it had not.  They did not have eye exams in those days. Had they, I wouldn't have made any teams."

But skating is what caught the eyes of the fans, the scouts and the coaches.

For you see, O'Ree's biggest talent was not his shot. It was decent, but not a booming one.  It wasn't his size, as he was 5-foot-10 and came in between 165-170 pounds at the utmost.

But the man could fly. He had speed.

"He had to be one of the fastest players on ice," said Milt Schmidt, who coached the Bruins at the time. "He was fast and we needed someone to handle those 'Flying Frenchman'. He was as fast as any of them and that is why he was called up."

The Bruins were very strong in that period. They made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1957 and 1958 with the likes of John Bucyk, Bronco Horvath, Vic Stasiuk, Fernie Flaman, Leo Boivin, Leo Labine, Jerry Toppazzini, Fleming MacKell, Doug Mohns, Don MacKenny and company. In those days getting 20 goals made you a sniper, and the Bruins had five of those and one 30-goal scorer in Horvath.

O'Ree played both games against the most powerful dynasty ever in hockey - the Montreal Canadiens had won two consecutive Cups by the time January 18th came around, and they would go on to win three more.  No other team has ever won five Cups in a row.

He was brought up to check the likes of Jean Beliveau, Maurice (the Rocket) Richard, and Dickie Moore. He and his teammates did well and O'Ree won his first game in the NHL. Behind the goaltending of Don Simmons, Boston shutout the Canadiens 3-0.

"I remember being very nervous on my first shift but after that the legs kicked in and I thought I handled myself well," O'Ree told TSN.ca in an interview last summer.

As for being the first black man ever to play in an NHL game?  It wasn't that big of a deal at the time, especially with the game being played in Montreal, because many of the Montreal fans were already familiar with O'Ree.

"Many had seen or heard of me because Montreal had a team in the Quebec league and it wasn't that big of a deal," O'Ree told TSN. "Many simply said 'Oh, they brought up that O'Ree kid from the Quebec Aces' and that was it."

Red Fisher, who has covered the Montreal Canadiens for over 50 years, was working for the Montreal Star and recalled the moment recently for O'Ree's hometown paper, the Fredericton Gleaner.

"Not even a murmur of interest greeted what a decade or so before had rocked baseball to its foundation," says Canada's hockey sage. "He was greeted with no emotion, no applause and above all, no animosity."

O'Ree's first tenure in the NHL that is being celebrated in many places over the next few days and weeks was barely 48 hours long.  He returned to the Aces and stayed in the minors until the 1960-61 season, when he made it back to Boston for a total of 43 games and scored his first goal.

"It was against the Montreal Canadiens. I remember getting a good pass at centre and going around Jean Guy Talbot, who was playing defense, getting a decent shot of, and scoring," he recalled.

It would be one of the few goals he would score.  As mentioned, he was not brought up to score, but to skate and check. He finished his NHL career with four goals and 10 assists.  But he may have led the league in an uncharted category.

Many of his teammates in Boston thought he had more breakaways than any other player.

"He was so fast and that speed led to many breakaways," said Schmidt, "but he didn't convert that many."

In the next few days and weeks, O'Ree will be a busy man. Not only is the NHL going to recognize the momentous moment, but so is the city of Fredericton and possibly other locations where O'Ree called it a career.

This past summer, the Black Hockey Association of Nova Scotia suggested that Canada Post honour the event with a stamp of the 50th anniversary.

Fredericton, where O'Ree was born on October 15, 1935 and where he called home until he left to play junior hockey in Kitchener with the Canucks, is planning several events and the big one is on Wednesday night when Northside Sports and Leisure Complex will be renamed Willie O'Ree Place.

In Fredericton, as a kid who put on skates at three-years old, he had no problem with 'ice time'.

"I would take a hose and water the backyard and had a rink. I also had four outdoor rinks within a few minutes from the house.  At times I even skated to school," he says. "We had ice from rinks, to backyards, to rivers, creeks and ponds and I was always on them."

And it's this ice time that he is fighting for these days in his role as the NHL's diversity ambassador. He travels all over the USA, into the inner cities, to promote the game of hockey.

"It's a great game and if we can get kids to try it then many will play the sport," he says.  "But it is a matter of ice time. A kid doesn't have a problem finding a b-ball court, a football or baseball field but rinks are a problem in many parts of the United States."

But, if a kid tries hockey, O'Ree says the chances are great that he will stick with it.  "I've been an ambassador for years and I have never had a kid turn his back on the game. They love hockey all they need is a chance to skate." He's traveled to places like Harlem, NY and Disneyworld to talk about hockey.

The Harlem kids pay $50 for the entire season and if they can't come up with the money for the fees or equipment, O'Ree and his team find a way help.  Everyone who wants to play hockey gets a chance.

These days, at 72, he still loves and game and promotes it all over the United States. He also tells kids to have dreams and believe in them.

The moment he broke the colour barrier was 50-years ago this week, but the first recognition by the NHL came in 1991, some 33 years after the fact, when he was invited to the all-star game in Chicago when Operation Desert Storm was underway.

He wonders why it took over 30 years to be acknowledged.

After O'Ree broke the colour barrier it took a long time until the next black man showed up with an NHL team.  That was Mike Marson, who cracked the Washington line-up in 1974.

Since O'Ree broke the barrier some 50 years ago, nearly 40 more black players have made it to the NHL.  There were six teams and around 100 jobs when he played on that January night in Montreal. Today we have 30 clubs and hundreds of job opportunities.

As a young kid, skating on the ponds of the New Brunswick capital, he dreamt that he could be a pro hockey player and maybe even do something that no one else had done, and that is play in the NHL.

He dreamt big and accomplished both. He did make it to the NHL and had a great 21-year pro career.

His recognition is long overdue.

For TSN.ca I'm Alex J. Walling

Alex J. can be reached via email at: ajw@eastlink.ca

 



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