As the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators clash on the ice for the National Hockey League’s championship finals, a prominent Black player might soon hoist the Stanley Cup in victory. PK Subban, who stars for the Predators, and other Black hockey players owe a great debt to the “Jackie Robinson of Hockey,” Willie O’Ree.
O’Ree was born October 15, 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. While playing in the minor leagues in his home country, O’Ree was called up to the majors by the Boston Bruins in January 1958 to cover for an injured player. The amazing part of O’Ree’s call up was that he was hiding a little-known secret. Two years prior to the debut, O’Ree was struck with a hockey puck and lost nearly all his sight in his right eye.
O’Ree returned to the minors but came back to the Bruins for the 1960-61 season and had by most measures a respectable season. In sharing his story over the years, O’Ree said he faced threats, targeted rough hits, and racism from the stands but never let deter him from the game. He continued his career in the minor leagues until the late ’70’s.
Today, 29 active Black players are in the NHL. This speaks not only to O’Ree’s legacy but also his work with the league in promoting diversity in its ranks. Players like Philadelphia Flyers star Wayne Simmonds and San Jose Sharks player Joel Ward look to O’Ree as an inspiration.
Among the several awards and honors he’s won, O’Ree has won the Lester Patrick Award for his service to hockey in the United States, to becoming part of the Order of New Brunswick in 2005.