Town Honors Hockey Pioneer Willie O'Ree

Oyster Bay honors Canadian who broke the NHL's color line in 1958.

Hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree, the first black man to play in the National Hockey League, was honored by the last week.

Oyster Bay proclaimed Jan. 18, as ‘Willie O’Ree Day’ in the Town of Oyster Bay, to commemorate the 53rd anniversary of O'Ree's  breaking of the color barrier in the NHL.

On Jan. 18, 1958, while playing for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens, O’Ree became the first black man to play in the NHL. At the time, O'Ree's entree into the NHL was an extraordinary event that paved the way for future players of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. A quarter century would pass before another black man played for an NHL team.

O'Ree played in only two games, in 1958, before returning to the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Hockey League. But he returned to the Bruins in 1961, where he played in 43 games in 1961, scoring four goals and 10 assists. He did this while virtually blind in one eye, the result of being hit with a puck.

O'Ree's entrance into the NHL came 11 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, playing his first game in 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League. O'Ree, 76, is often referred to as the "Jackie Robinson of Hockey." In fact, the two men met on several occasions, O'Ree has said.

Robinson's emergence in the Major Leagues is widely considered a key component of the Civil Rights movement. Like Robinson, O'Ree said he, too, was the subject of racial slurs and bigotry during those years, but was treated well by his Bruins' teammates and generally across his career in Canada.

O'Ree's career began in 1951 when he played for his hometown minor league team in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Although his career in the NHL was limited to his stint with the Bruins, O'Ree continued to play minor league hockey until 1979, according to Wikipedia and other sources. His last years in the game were played in San Diego for in the Pacific Southwest Hockey League, according to Wikipedia.

During last week's event at the town's ice rink in Bethpage, local coaches conducted instructional clinics in honor of the event for about 50 young members of the town's youth ice hockey leagues.

O'Ree's contribution has been honored by many organizations. He is the recipient of the Order of Canada, that nation's second highest medal for merit.


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