Interview with Willie O'Ree
NHL history was made January 18, 1958
Most of us attend or watch sporting events. We find excitement in following our favorite players and teams. There are games and scores we will talk about for years to come. Every now and then, some of us are lucky enough to see history happen right before our eyes. Such was the case on January 18th, 1958 when Willie O’Ree broke the color barrier in the National Hockey League and became known as the Jackie Robinson of hockey.
A few years later in 1967, Mr. O’Ree joined our new San Diego Gulls and became a fan favorite almost overnight. Over the next 12 years, Mr. O’Ree played on three different San Diego hockey teams. Since 1998, Mr. O’Ree has been the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and an ambassador for the NHL Diversity Program that has introduced over 40,000 boys and girls to the sport. Last October, the Gulls hung his number 20 in the rafters in the Valley View Casino Center and we were able to catch up with him just after that special evening.
FM: Tell us about that night on January 18th, 1958 when you stepped out onto the ice wearing a Boston Bruins uniform and became the first black man to play in the NHL.
WO: First of all, I was no stranger to the Montreal fans because I played against the Montreal Royals, the professional team there, and then I played against the Montreal Junior Canadians so when I stepped on the ice on— it was a Saturday?—on January the 18th, I felt comfortable being in Montreal and playing in the old Forum, which was great. But when the game started, I had a couple of butterflies that first shift, and then I just kind of settled down, but it was a great feeling.
I didn’t realize at that time that I broke the color barrier and became the first black player to play in the NHL. It wasn’t till the next morning that I read it in the paper, I was just so excited about playing in Montreal against the Montreal Canadians in a regularly scheduled NHL game and then also beating the Canadians 3–0 that night, so it was a great night, and a great start for me.
How old were you when you first started playing hockey and when did you decide to make it your career?
Well, I started skating at the age of 3. My dad made a rink in my backyard, we had a good–sized backyard and I started playing organized hockey when I was 5. I played up through the ranks and then when I was 14, I decide that I was going to become a professional hockey player. Thanks to my older brother who played hockey, and I had the pleasure of playing with my brother on two or three different teams before I left. He was not only my brother and my friend, but he was my mentor.
You were a part of the original Gulls back in San Diego in the sixties. What were some of your most memorable experiences from 1967–1974, and then again from 77–78?
I really feel that the seven years I played with the San Diego Gulls were the seven best years I had playing professional out of the 21 years I played. Bob Brietbard and Max McNab brought me to San Diego in ’67, and I just fell in love with the city and the players that I had the pleasure to play with. It was just like a family team. We went out into the community and talked to schools, went to senior citizens places. Being here in San Diego, seeing the palm trees and the weather that we have here... “I could stay,” I told myself, “play as hard as you can and try to be the best player you can and try to represent the hockey club to the best of your abilities.” It’s a great city and a great team and the fans were great. I can’t say enough about the fans and how they supported the team over the years that I had the pleasure of playing here.
Today you’re still involved in the NHL as the Director of Youth Development for the Diversity Task Force. What is this program?
I joined the National Hockey League in 1998 as the director of NHL’s Diversity Program, which is now the Hockey–Is–For–Everyone Program. Back then, we had about five programs and I would travel around to these different cities to encourage and teach kids to play hockey. I visited numerous schools, boys and girls clubs, YMCA & YWCAs, juvenile detentions […] Now we have over 45 programs located in America, and I’m doing the same thing. […]
Basically, you set your mind to do something because if you don’t follow through with it, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. I use myself as an example: from losing my right eye after being struck with a puck and the doctor telling me that I wouldn’t be able to play hockey again because I was going to be blind in the right eye, and I just couldn’t accept that. I told myself that the doctor didn’t know the goals and dreams that I had set for myself and how I felt within myself. So I just said “I’m going to prove this [guy] wrong, so I just went out and finished the season.
Willie O’Ree is one of those fortunate few that knew at a young age what he wanted to do with his life and is still doing just that at the age of 80, on the ice and doing what he loves. The NHL could not have chosen a better person for the Youth Development program and he has done wonders with it. Today hockey is available to far more many children then it was a mere 15 years ago, from backgrounds and regions that at one time seemed very unlikely. For this we salute you, Willie O’Ree!