Review by Budd Bailey
t took the National Hockey League quite a while to learn what a special player and person Willie O’Ree was and is.
Luckily, we now have Willie’s own story about his hockey journey for reference. “Willie” shows what a remarkable life he’s led.
O’Ree has been the answer to a trivia question for decades, of course. He was the first person of African descent to play a game in the NHL. Hockey’s color line was shattered in January 1958 when he set foot on the ice for the Boston Bruins. To give you some perspective on what a step forward that was, the Boston Red Sox still hadn’t used a black player at that point. Green integrated the Red Sox in the summer of 1959.
You might say O’Ree beat some long odds to play in the NHL. He played at a time when there were few blacks playing hockey in Canada, the usual spawning ground for hockey talent. O’Ree had an ancestor escape from the South in the United States in the 19th century, and he landed in New Brunswick. It was the most natural thing in the world for someone in that part of Canada to want to play hockey, especially considering he had plenty of athletic ability.
Yes, Willie encountered plenty of predjudice and racial taunts growing up, but in spite of the odd incident he mostly kept quiet and played hockey. It was a slow rise through the ranks, but O’Ree acquitted himself well in the NHL when he got the chance. The problem was that he didn’t get much of a chance. Willie was traded by the Bruins in the summer of 1958, and wound up spending most of the rest of his career in the minors.
And here’s the amazing part. O’Ree did it with one eye that worked. He was blind in his other eye. Considered that maybe 130 players could call themselves NHL players in the Original Six era. Willie was right on the fringe of making it with one eye. Is there any doubt he would have had a good career in the world’s best league with two good eyes?
O’Ree has a few stories about how the color of his skin led to some skirmishes during his hockey years. A couple of players, Erik Nesterenko and Doug Messier, get singled out for some unnecessary physical abuse here. Others in the game, from officials to the fans, are mentioned here as well. Willie stuck up for himself when necessary. For the most part, though, O’Ree turned the other cheek and tried to respond by winning the game.
After retirement, O’Ree had a variety of jobs but couldn’t get hockey out of his blood. Therefore, when the NHL called and asked if he’d like to help the league become diverse, he was ready. O’Ree has thrown himself into those duties for more than a quarter-century, and has received a ton of honors from a variety of sources. The biggest came when Willie went into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builders’ category. It was a popular choice.
O’Ree and Michael McKinley have written a relatively short book, but certainly Willie’s class comes across nicely here. I could see this serving as an inspiration to teens, especially those in hockey. But fans of all ages ought to enjoy this.
O’Ree’s unofficial nickname became “the Jackie Robinson of hockey” along the way. They certainly had similar landmarks but very different lives. Still, they both are members of an exclusive club. It’s about time we heard O’Ree’s story at length, and “Willie” works nicely in filling in a gap in hockey literature.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)