For all the jokes about black people not following hockey, the fact of the matter is that there have been some trailblazers in the sport that should have their names spoken in the same breath as other names like Jackie Robinson. Newsone reports that one such man is finally getting his due, with 83-year-old Willie O’Ree—the first black man to play in the NHL, being inducted into the sport’s Hall of Fame on Monday.
O’Ree entered the league back in 1958 and played for the Boston Bruins. During his time playing, he encountered hostility unlike what we would ever expect to see on a rink or field today. In one incident, during a brawl, an opponent knocked out his teeth with a hockey stick. In another incident, a group of fans tried to pull him into the stands to attack him.
“I heard that N-word so many times that I just let it go in one ear and out the other,” O’Ree told the New York Times in their coverage of his award. “I never fought because of racial slurs or remarks. I fought because guys speared me, butt-ended me, crosschecked me and things of that nature. Otherwise I would have spent every game in the penalty box.” Despite those obstacles, O’Ree persevered because he knew that stepping on the ice to compete was something bigger than him and he was breaking barriers for Black athletes who would follow in his footsteps, Newsone adds.
After retiring from sports, O’Ree decided to focus on those same young athletes, being the head of several youth programs in hockey in an effort to try and diversify the sport. “Willie O’Ree’s story must not be forgotten,” Karl Subban, a father of three Black NHL draft picks, told Sports Illustrated. “He has made it possible for my boys to have the NHL dream and to believe they could achieve it. He changed hockey which is now for everyone. Hockey needed him and so does the Hockey Hall of Fame. The time is right!” Note that despite the road that O’Ree and others forged, there is still a long way to go, with the NHL still being 97% white.