Willie O’Ree is one of the most prominent figures in hockey history. He was the first African American to play in the National Hockey League (NHL). But did you know he kept a secret throughout his twenty-one-year career as a professional player?
Willie O’Ree was the very first African American who played in the NHL. Before joining the league, his right eye was legally blind, but he did let anyone know. O’Ree’s career spanned 21 years, and no one knew he was blind in one eye.
Who is Willie O’Ree?
William O’Ree was born on October 15, 1935, in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. He was the youngest son of civil engineer Harry and his wife, Rosebud. O’Ree came from a large family with 12 siblings. They were the only other black family in Fredericton at the time.
O’Ree started playing hockey when he was three. He instantly fell in love with the sport. Two years later, the young boy started playing organized hockey. It was also said that he skated on going to school when the weather permitted. O’Ree was already playing for the Fredericton Falcons in the New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association by the age of fifteen.
The soon-to-be hockey legend pursued his career in the sport. He progressed through the Fredericton hockey system, playing on the Fredericton Merchants in the York County Hockey League and the Fredericton Capitals in the New Brunswick Senior Hockey League.
When he turned 19, O’Ree joined the Quebec Frontenacs and played in the Quebec Junior Hockey League. He ended the 1954 season with great statistics: 27 goals and 17 assists for 44 points in 43 games. In the 1955 season, the black player played for the Kitchener Canucks in the Ontario Hockey Association.
O’Ree suffered a significant injury and could not play for the remainder of the season. Still, he made a strong comeback during playing for the Quebec Aces in the following season, remaining with the team for a total of three seasons. (Source: Britannica)
How Did Willie O’Ree Get Injured?
While playing for the Kitchener Canucks in 1955, O’Ree had an injury that almost ended his career. He was struck in the face by a ricocheting puck. The puck broke his nose his cheekbone and completely ripped the retina of his right eye. Dr. Henderson, the surgeon who performed O’Ree’s surgery, told him that he wouldn’t be able to play hockey again. The impact almost blinded his eye, leaving it with only 5% functionality.
The player, who was just eighteen when it happened, felt devastated. While recuperating, he was already thinking of what he should do. But in a matter of a few weeks, O’Ree was already practicing and playing, thanks to his strong determination to play in the National Hockey League. (Source: CBC)
How Did He Get Into the NHL?
In multiple interviews, O’Ree disclosed that he had to relearn playing hockey with his disability. He also mentioned that he never revealed his disability to anyone, as he would automatically be disqualified from playing in the NHL. This is according to the league’s bylaws. (Source: CBC)
O’Ree returned to the ice as part of the Quebec Aces working on his game. At the time, the Aces had a working relationship with the Boston Bruins. This meant that any of the members of the Aces could be called upon to play for the Bruins. And in 1958, O’Ree got his break: he was called upon to play for the Bruins. He was the first African American to play in the NHL. He was also the first African American to score a goal in the NHL. (Source: Britannica)