Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Willie O'Ree Named To Order Of Canada

One of Fredericton's favourite sons, Willie O'Ree, has been named to the Order of Canada today, affording him at long last just one of the plum accolades he so richly deserves; O'Ree is known as 'the Jackie Robinson of hockey' for being the first black player in the game*, which he became when he took to the ice for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens in January 1958.

PhotobucketOnce there he encountered some hateful speech, although he later admitted the problem was much worse in the US than Canada**; many of those fans - the sort of enlightened intellectuals who were unable to grasp the concept of a black man born in Canada - would yell at him to go back to the South - of New Brunswick, obviously. O'Ree's reaction was philosophical: 'It didn't bother me,' he is reported as saying. 'I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn't accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.' Now that's what I call class...

O'Ree scored 4 goals and had 10 assists in his NHL career, which reached its pinnacle with the 43 games he played in 1961; at that point he returned to the minor leagues, where he played with the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League. He retired in 1971, and there wasn't another black player until fellow Canadian Mike Marson was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974; O'Ree blazed a trail, though, which has since been taken by such players as Canadians Jarome Iginla and Anson Carter and American Mike Grier.

The Gulls later retired his number, and hung his jersey from the rafters of the San Diego Sports Arena; given the tenor of the times, we should all be grateful he wasn't in it at the time. O'Ree was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984, and since 1998 has worked for the NHL's Diversity Task Force, which aims to bring more minorities into the sport.

*Although Art Dorrington was the first black player to sign a pro contract, in 1950, he never left the minors.
**Surely he's only being diplomatic here; Canadian bigots are just as good as American ones, there's just fewer of them per capita so it seems like there's less of them.

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