Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Richard Riot…and Aftermath

Maurice "The Rocket" Richard
The pot boiled over 13 March 1955 at Boston Garden when the first-place Montreal Canadiens had come to Beantown on an 11-game unbeaten streak and a 4-point lead over their fierce rivals, the Detroit Red Wings. Four games were left in the schedule. The most explosive and the most popular Canadien player in Quebec, as well as the biggest drawing card in the game, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard was leading the NHL scoring race by 2 points over teammate Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion and 3 points over another teammate, Jean Beliveau. It was winding down to a 3-man battle.

With four minutes left to play in the game, the Habs were behind 4-1. In the midst of a Canadiens power play, Bruins defenseman Hal Laycoe (an ex-Canadien) high-sticked Richard to the head. Referee Frank Udvari caught the infraction but allowed the play to continue as a delayed penalty because the Canadiens still had the puck. In response, Montreal coach Dick Irvin sent an extra attacker over the boards. A few seconds later, the Bruins took possession and the whistle blew.

Play over, Richard, bleeding from a cut to his head, skated over to Laycoe. When the Bruins defenseman dropped his stick and gloves to fight, Richard then used his stick to whack Laycoe across the face and shoulders. Taking Richard’s stick away, linesman Cliff Thompson intervened to steer the furious Richard back. But that only made Richard all the more mad. He grabbed a teammate’s stick and skated back to Laycoe and broke it across the player’s chest. Thompson stepped in again, pulling the second stick away. This time Richard grabbed a third stick and shattered it over Laycoe’s back. Richard then knocked Thompson unconscious with 2 blows to the face.  Calming down to a certain degree and taking a breath, Richard left the ice. He was handed a match penalty and an automatic $100 fine. Big deal, a hundred bucks. Laycoe received a 5-minute major and a 10-minute misconduct for his actions in the melee.

Boston police entered the scene and headed to the Canadiens dressing room to arrest Richard, but his teammates stood their ground at the entrance door. Escaping constabulary custody, the Rocket left for a nearby hospital where he received 5 stitches and complained of a severe headache along with stomach pains. This was the second time in the season that Richard had assaulted an on-ice official. In Toronto, the December before, he had slapped a linesman in the face after thrashing Leafs Bob Bailey with his stick. For that, he was fined $250. Another big deal. All parties this time around were ordered to report to NHL president Clarence Campbell at his Montreal office on Wednesday 16 March.  Following the 13 March game in Boston, the other teams around the league began to pressure Campbell to finally deal with Richard and his fiery temper. The diddly-squat fines were a joke. They were always paid by someone else. It appeared the rest of the league had had enough.

At 10:30 on the 16th, Habs coach Dick Irvin and assistant GM Ken Reardon accompanied Richard to NHL Headquarters on the 6th floor of the Sun Life Building in Montreal. Also at the hearing were Hal Laycoe, Bruins coach-GM Lynn Patrick, NHL referee-in-chief Carl Voss, plus the officials from the game 3 days earlier--referee Frank Udvari, and linesmen Cliff Thompson and Sammy Babcock. During the closed-door meeting, Campbell sat back and listened. Richard claimed he mistook Cliff Thompson for a Bruins player. After an intense 3 hours where the 3 sides had it out in the open, all were dismissed. For the next few hours that afternoon, Campbell considered Richard’s long list of past infractions before coming to a final decision…

In a 1947 Stanley Cup playoff game, Richard slashed 2 different Leaf players to the head in the same game. Four years later, he mugged a referee in the lobby of a New York hotel. Richard was probably still all geared up from the night before when he had hit a linesman with his stick, plus he had fought a Ranger while the 2 were in the penalty box. October 1951 at Maple Leaf Gardens, Richard swung his stick at a Leaf fan during the game, then at another Leaf fan after the game. A year later, he assaulted a policeman in Valleyfield, Quebec, following an exhibition game.  And it doesn’t end there. In 1953, Richard slashed a New York Rangers player over the head, resulting in 8 stitches for the victim. It took President Campbell 3 hours to come to a final ruling on the 13 March matter. At 4:30 PM, he announced to the press that Richard would be suspended for the rest of the regular season and the entire playoffs. French-Canadians were livid, to say the least. Not only was the Stanley Cup in jeopardy, but so was Richard’s chance to win his first-ever Art Ross Trophy for most points. Up to the 1954-55 season, he had lead the league in goals  4 times, but had yet to take a scoring title. At 34 years of age in another month, he might never get another chance. And he never did, either.

As in life’s circumstances, there’s 2 sides to every story. In an interview before his death in 1997, Hal Laycoe told a Victoria, BC newspaper reporter that it was Richard who started all the trouble by “pitchforking” Laycoe to the face with his stick, which resulting in Laycoe retaliating with the high stick that resulted in the delayed penalty. Funny thing, the 2 players were teammates 5 years before. As Habs, they used to enjoy each other’s company and would play tennis together in the off-season.

The evening after the hearing, the Canadiens were scheduled to meet the Red Wings at the Montreal Forum. Campbell made it known that he would attend the game and sit in his customary spot. Mayor Jean Drapeau begged the league president not to go for fear of starting a riot. But Campbell really had no choice. No show, he would look like a coward. So, he went and a riot did start. In fact, all hell broke loose. First, he had everything thrown at him including the kitchen sink. Programs, tomatoes, drinks. One fan hit him before being ushered away. Then with the Wings up 4-1 near the end of the first period, a tear gas exploded about 10 yards from  Campbell, spewing a cloud of smoke into the air. Everyone headed for the exits, including the NHL president. In the Forum clinic, Campbell came to 2 decisions. Clear the building, and forfeit the game to the visiting Red Wings.

Outside, on St. Catherine Street, an angry, blood-thirsty mob of about 10,000 gathered. In a scene similar to the 1993 Stanley Cup riot in Montreal and the more recent 2011 Vancouver hockey riot, hooligans smashed several Forum windows, turned streetcars over, looted stores, and set fire to a newsstand and several vehicles. Dozens were arrested by the time order was restored by local police after 3 AM. The unrest, of course, made front page world headlines.

Teammate Bernie Geoffrion passed the Rocket in points on the last game of the season--against the Red Wings in Detroit--and was booed by Montreal Forum fans after that. He finished with 75 points, Richard with 74 points, and Beliveau with 73 points. The Canadiens beat the Bruins in 5 games in the first round of the playoffs, but lost the final to the Red Wings in 7 games. Following the season, Montreal coach Dick Irvin--the one considered by many to rile up the Rocket far too often--was fired after 15 seasons at the helm. He was replaced by Toe Blake, a good friend and linemate of Richard’s in the 1940s on the Habs “Punch Line” with Elmer Lach. One of Blake’s jobs was now to tone the Rocket down. One way of doing that was making him team captain, which Richard assumed after the current captain, defenseman Butch Bouchard, retired one more season later in 1956.

Hal Laycoe, Richard's former Montreal teammate

The Montreal Canadiens went on to dominate the NHL by winning 5 straight Stanley Cups the season immediately after the riot, thus ending the 1950s decade very favorably for them. In the spring of 1960, that final season of the 5, they swept the opposition in the playoffs with 8 straight wins, the first team to do so since Gordie Howe’s Detroit Red Wings performed it for the first time in 1952. Not bad for Toe Blake’s first few NHL coaching years. It was reminiscent of Casey Stengel’s World Series wins his first 5 years managing the New York Yankees from 1949-1953. With a formidable killer power play during that mighty run, the Canadiens were too good.  Under different power play rules then, it was a foregone conclusion they would score at least once and sometimes more when they had the man-advantage. The epitome was Jean Beliveau once scoring a Hat Trick on Bruins goalie Terry Sawchuk in under a minute. Something had to be done. So, the rest of the teams--led by Detroit GM Jack Adams--ganged up on Montreal to get the league to officially change the rules for the 1957-58 season to allow penalized players back on the ice once their team had been scored on.

The Canadiens were a powerhouse throughout the fabulous ‘50s, making it to the Stanley Cup finals 10 straight times, and winning 6 of them. Would they have won 6 straight had Richard not been suspended in 1955? Who knows. Perhaps. Richard retired in 1960, after the team’s 5th straight win. Lifetime, he had scored a then-record 544 regular season goals plus 421 assists for 965 points in 978 games; and another then-record 82 goals in addition to 44 assists for 126 points in 133 pressure-packed playoff games that always separated the men from the boys. Six of those goals were in sudden-death overtime. Only one person has scored more OT goals since…Joe Sakic with 8. In 18 seasons, Richard was a major part of 8 Stanley Cup winners. And, by the way, if you combine his 1,111 regular season and playoffs games, he collected a total of 1,473 minutes in penalties.

For the next 4 seasons that opened up the 1960s, the Habs finished first 3 times and third another time. Every time they were beaten in the first round of the playoffs. There was no heart and soul to the team anymore. I remember my hockey fan mother saying, “They miss the Rocket.” They did start winning again midway in the decade and got on another run of championships well into the 1970s, ending with Scotty Bowman taking the coaching reins and winning 4 in a row.

I had a chance to see Rocket Richard play on one occasion. In January or February 1970, I was an 18-year-old  Junior B goalie for a Regina, Saskatchewan team. This one night, we played a game against the Regina Pats B team at Exhibition Stadium in Regina. After the game, my coach, Bill Folk, an ex-minor league hockey player who had once played 12 games for the Detroit Red Wings in the Original Six era, asked me if I would play goal so that he and several other Western Canada ex-pros could practice before they would be playing in another 2 days in the same rink. It was a game where the opposition would be the Montreal Canadiens Old-Timers, led by none other than Maurice “The Rocket” Richard. I was tired, but I said sure. I was all warmed up, anyway. Besides, Bill said they were short a goalie.

I had a lot of fun with these ex-NHL pros, most of them unsteady on their skates after years of inactivity. Lorne Davis, Dunc Fisher, Bob Turner, and Bill Moisenko, were 3 that I remember, along with my coach. For you hockey historians, Mosienko once scored 3 goals in 21 seconds, still in the books as the fastest Hat Trick ever. After the game, Turner sent the Pats team trainer out to retrieve 2 cases of beer for everybody. Over a couple bubbly Pilsners, I sat back and listened to the stories and the BS. It was great! When I was ready to leave, one of the players gave me a couple tickets for the upcoming game against the Habs Old-Timers. I suppose a reward for helping them out in the practice. So, of course, I went to the game. I can’t remember who I went with, though. Anyway, this was 10 years after the Rocket had retired. Gosh, he was still the Rocket in his late 40s and he thrilled the crowd and me. I can’t remember the actual outcome. But Montreal won and I do recall that Richard scored on a wicked backhand from the slot. That much I do remember. The packed house gave him a standing ovation. Everybody seemed happy, including the opposition.

The Rocket received an even bigger standing ovation—this time for a solid 16 minutes—during the ceremonies that closed the Montreal Forum down 11 March 1996. I remember seeing it on TV. Richard couldn’t keep back the tears. When he passed away in 2000, over 115,000 filed past his casket in the Molson Centre. His funeral mass at Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica was carried live on 11 Quebec TV channels. It was a service befitting a statesman.

Ex-NHL referee Red Storey once said, “There’ll NEVER be another Rocket.” So true, Red.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Crazy Rudolf Hess Peace Flight

Pieces of Rudolf Hess' ME-110 that crashed in Scotland, 10 May 1941, (United Kingdom Public Domain)

It’s 10 May 1941, nearly 2 years into World War II. It’s a desperate time for the British, standing alone against Nazi Germany who had taken the European continent and were within binocular sight 22 miles straight across the English Channel. Still feeling the effects of a winter in which their cities were bombed night after night, the Brits were on their last legs. A weary cigar-smoking, hard-drinking Prime Minister Winston Churchill was facing fierce criticism from parliament, his own cabinet, and the voting public. His opponents wanted him to give into Adolf Hitler, let him take Europe and sign a negotiated peace to end the bloodshed. 

That same day, Nazi Deputy Fuehrer Rudolf Hess, an accomplished pilot, left Augsburg, Germany in his personal Messerschmitt Bf-110 and crossed the North Sea.  At 11 PM, under the cover of darkness, in addition to a massive German bombing raid on London, he parachuted from his aircraft about 30 miles south of Glasgow, Scotland, following a flight of more than 1,000 miles. Quickly taken into custody, he gave his name as Captain Alfred Horn and demanded to be taken to RAF Wing Commander Duke of Hamilton, whose country estate, Dungavel Castle, was in the vicinity. Actually, only 10 miles away. (Hess and other Germans had reason to believe that Hamilton had strong connections to a British appeaser group who were seeking to overthrow Prime Minister Churchill in favor of someone more sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Hess was good friends with Geopolitics Professor Karl Haushofer, Hess’s Munich University teacher after World War I, and Haushofer’s son, Albrecht, who had known Hamilton prior to 1939).

Upon seeing Hamilton in person, Hess then claimed to be the Nazi Deputy Fuehrer and said he was on a one-man mission of peace to save Great Britain and the world from annihilation. He insisted that no one in Germany knew he was coming. Stunned by the events, the British held him under close guard, then finally released the information to the press 2 days later, where it made front page headlines with the Glasgow Daily Record. The world was shocked. In Germany, Adolf Hitler supposedly blew a cork. The Nazi propaganda quickly announced to their people that Hess had lost his mind. In a nutshell, the above is the official account we have read in many history books.  But what’s the truth behind it all? Here are several other points to consider, just a few in this complex case as crazy as the JFK assassination 22 years later…

--Three days before the Hess Flight, 7 May, Churchill was facing a crucial non-confidence vote in the British House of Commons, a showdown between his leadership and those who opposed his handling of the war. One critic had accused Churchill of trying to run the war all by himself. Good news was hard to come by for Churchill and his beleaguered nation. They were losing on all fronts…North Africa, Malta, and the open Atlantic where German U-boats were sinking one in 10 supply ships coming from Canada and the then-neutral United States. But that afternoon, a perked-up Churchill gave one of his great, stirring speeches that electrified the packed chamber. When the votes were taken, the Prime Minister stole the floor with a startling 447 to 3 victory. Still, Hess arrived on enemy soil, although Churchill seemed in firm command. Did Hess think he could single-handedly convince the British to change their minds?

--The day after the flight, the Duke of Hamilton reported directly to Prime Minister Churchill, who was at a friend’s country estate called Ditchley Park. It was a long trip south for Hamilton, flying at first, then being escorted by car. Upon arrival at Ditchley Park in the evening, Hamilton could see that Churchill and several guests had just finished a huge meal and were in good spirits. Brandy and cigars had been passed around. Taking Churchill aside, Hamilton informed his superior about Hess landing in Scotland. Churchill didn’t believe Hamilton at first. Then, frowning, the Prime Minister said, “Hess or know Hess, I’m going to watch the Marx Brothers.” With that, the entire delegation withdrew to another room, where a projector was made ready. The evening’s film was The Marx Brothers Go West. Given a comfortable chair, Hamilton  was so exhausted from everything in the last 24 hours that he fell asleep and didn’t wake up until the film was over and the lights were turned on. Then, in a private room, he gave Churchill the details of Hess’s arrival and confinement in Scotland.

--Word may have leaked out about Hess’s mission prior to his leaving Germany. According to German fighter pilot Adolf Galland in his memoirs, The First and the Last (1953), he spoke of a strange phone call he had received from Luftwaffe Reichmarshall Hermann Goering  on the evening of 10 May 1941. At the time, Galland commanded the Luftwaffe fighter squadrons defending the North Sea coast. Goering , in a panic, ordered Galland to take off with his entire wing. Galland replied there was no enemy aircraft on radar flying in. “What do you mean flying in? You’re supposed to stop an aircraft flying out! The Deputy Fuehrer has gone mad and is flying to England in an ME-110.” Even though there was only about 10 minutes of daylight left, Galland did as ordered. Returning to base, he and his squadrons didn’t see anything resembling a stray twin-engine ME-110.

--In 2010, a 28-page notebook supposedly written by Hess’s adjutant Karlheinz Pintsch was found in the Soviet Union, where he was held prisoner and tortured by the Russians for 10 years after the war. In it, Pintsch wrote that Hitler knew about Hess’s peace mission and even sanctioned it. If so, was Hitler blowing his cork only an act?

--In his best-selling book, Mein Kampf, which he wrote prior to gaining power in 1932, Adolf Hitler stated firmly that England was Germany’s natural ally. If he came to power, he promised the readers to seek a peaceful coexistence with his British brothers. He went on to say he would leave the Brits to their sea empire, providing they would let Germany have a free hand in Europe, and that the real common enemy of the two countries was the Communist Soviet Union. Hess helped Hitler write the popular book, Mein Kampf, while the 2 were in prison as a result of a botched illegal coup of the German government in 1923 called the Munich Putsch. Britain and Germany had no reason to be enemies, Hitler believed, something that Hess must’ve believed in too, enough to seek out the Duke of Hamilton and his appeaser contacts. Did Hitler send Hess to fulfill what had been stated in Mein Kampf almost 20 years before?

--Welsh Dr Hugh Thomas in his 2 books on the Hess flight--The Murder of Rudolf Hess (1979) and Hess…A Tale of Two Murders (1988)--insisted the pilot who landed in Scotland was a Hess double.  Thomas based his claim on the fact that when he examined the prisoner Hess on one occasion in 1973 during the German’s lifetime War Crimes confinement, he did not find any evidence of the severe World War I chest wounds that Rudolf Hess was supposed to have had, according to Hess’s known medical report. During the examination, Thomas asked the prisoner in German, “What happened to your war wounds? Not even skin deep?” The prisoner turned white as a sheet and began to shake so violently that Thomas thought he was going have a heart attack. The prisoner wanted nothing more to do with Dr Thomas after that. The 2 never saw each other again.

--Also in support of the imposter theory, Karlheinz Pintsch had taken pictures of Hess in his flight suit and with his ME-110 leaving that 10 May 1941 afternoon, the pictures published in Thomas’s first book, and other books and magazine articles worldwide. According to records at Augsburg, Germany, Hess’s personal aircraft had the fuselage markings NJ+C11. However, the one that crashed in the Scottish countryside and is on display today at the Imperial War Museum in London has the markings VJ+OQ. Under interrogation by the British, their prisoner made no mention of switching aircraft en route. He even claimed to not having refueled. If that was the case, he would need drop tanks to make the long flight because ME-110s did not have the range for such a journey. Trouble was, in Pintsch’s pictures taken at Augsburg, Germany there were no such drop tanks.

--Imposter or no imposter, depending on what you want to believe, the Hess Flight was the turning point in the war for Britain. Nothing was going right for them before Hess arrived. Six weeks later, Hitler invaded Russia, creating a 2-front war for Germany, thus taking the heat off Britain. Then the US joined the Allies at the end of the year when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. With the American industrial might backing him up, Churchill supposedly slept well after that, while Roosevelt must have had sleepless nights mobilizing his own country for war.

--At  Nuremberg  in 1946, where Hess, Goering, and other Nazis were on trial for their lives after the defeat of Germany, Hess claimed to have amnesia. A perfect cover for an imposter, right? According to prison psychiatrist Dr GM Gilbert, in Thomas’s 2 books, Goering said to Hess, “By the way, Hess, when are you going to let us in on your great secret?” What secret was that?

Rudolf Hess in Landsberg Prison, Germany, during the
Nuremberg Trials, 1946 (United States Public Domain)
--A strange incident happened to me in 1997, when I spoke to a group of aviation enthusiasts and pilots at a small gathering outside Waterdown, Ontario. The occasion was my soon-to-be released book, The Hess Papers, which has since been renamed The Fuehrermaster by my present British publisher, Mushroom E-Books. You see, I too believed—and still do--in the Hess imposter theory and wrote about it in historical-fiction form.  You can check my book out via the link in my sidebar. I guess, I’m tooting my own horn here. Anyway, after I spoke to the small group of maybe 20 men, we all stood around, had some coffee, and chatted. I was approached by an elderly gentleman who said that his uncle was one of the backroom lawyers at the Nuremberg trials after the war. Now that immediately caught my attention. The gentleman said he had mentioned to his uncle at a family get-together in the 1950s, “It’s too bad you didn’t get Hitler to stand trial at Nuremberg,” to which his uncle replied, “It’s too bad we didn’t get Hess either. That man at Nuremberg was not Hess. And I think a lot of people knew it.”

--Speaking on the Hess Flight  in his memoirs, Churchill wrote, “I never attached any serious importance to the escapade.” Maybe because he and others close to the scene knew the man in custody was a phony.

--Sentenced to life at Spandau Prison in West Berlin for War Crimes, Hess died a frail old man of 93 on 17 August 1987. Suicide by hanging, was the officially story.  Another official story. Or did someone knock him off? Was he finally talking? If he was an imposter, then who perpetrated it? Did British Intelligence know ahead of time that the real Hess was coming and lured him in? If that’s true, did Hess die on British soil and get replaced? Or did someone in the German High Command get rid of the real Hess  before he even crossed the North Sea?

--In 1941, the British Government placed a 100-year Secrets Stamps on the more sensitive details of the Hess Flight and the circumstances surrounding it. On 2 different occasions over the years some of the information has been released, but nothing really of note. I wonder if I’ll still be alive and thinking clearly in 2041 to find out what really happened that 10 May 1941 and afterwards. Gosh, I’ll be 89. I’m not hoping for it to happen too soon, though, if you catch my drift.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

‘The Jackie Robinson of Hockey’ Carried A Big Secret

Willie O'Ree, the Jackie Robinson of Hockey

Willie O’Ree might have played more games and received more recognition for his talents  in the National Hockey League if not for two things…the color of his skin and a badly-damaged right eye. Born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick in 1935, William Eldon O’Ree was a black Canadian, youngest  of 8 siblings (4 boys, 4 girls) in a town where there was only one other black family, actually on the same street. Like so many Canadian boys, he grew up playing hockey. He was on skates at 3, in organized hockey at 5, and playing with and against whites which nobody really thought twice about. His dad used to connect the garden hose in the backyard and make a rink for him and the other kids in the neighborhood. He played about a half-dozen different sports as a youngster, always keeping his grades up because his parents were strict about a proper education. By the time he reached 14, he realized that hockey was his game, despite the fact he was a very good baseball infielder too.

Spring 1956, with 4 seasons of junior hockey under his belt split between Fredericton and Quebec City, O’Ree was approached by  Milwaukee Braves scouts and invited him to a minor league baseball camp held in Waycross, Georgia. “I told them that I planned to make hockey my career and that I had no interest in becoming a professional baseball player,” he said. O’Ree only played baseball to keep his legs in shape and his reflexes sharp for hockey. But somehow the Braves convinced O’Ree to give it a try. He was there for 3 weeks, then left, although he thought he had a good camp.

“That was my first time in the south,” he later recounted. “It’s customs, you know like, white-only restaurants, I never experienced anything like that in Canada. When I left, I had to sit in the back of the bus. I couldn’t move to the front until I got up north.”

Back to Canada, playing his last season of junior hockey in 1955-56 for the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks, O’Ree was hit in the right eye off teammate Kent Douglas’ slapshot from the point. The injury was serious enough that he lost 95 percent of his vision in the eye. A doctor advised him to quit hockey, but Willie was stubborn. He returned to the ice a few months later and kept the injury a secret. But he had a problem. “I was a left-hand shot playing left wing.” he said. “So to compensate I had to turn my head all the way around to my right shoulder to pick up the puck.” He turned pro in 1957-58 with the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Hockey League, a minor league affiliate of the Boston Bruins, where he was coached by the great Punch Imlach. O’Ree agreed to a $3,500 salary and a $500 signing bonus, still keeping his injury a secret, all the time telling himself that if he could make the team with one eye. He wasn’t going to tell them otherwise. He knew that if word got out about his condition, his pro career and his dream in the NHL would be down the drain. “I never took an eye exam in all the years I played pro and no one ever made me. Back then, they were more concerned with your physical condition, and I always kept myself in good shape.” The 5-foot-10 winger played most of his career at around 180 pounds.

O’Ree was invited to the Bruins training camp in the fall of 1957, but was sent back to Quebec  for more seasoning. Then 18 January 1958, O’Ree got the call to report to the Montreal Forum. The Bruins were battered with injuries and they needed some fresh legs. Was O’Ree nervous? In a 1 February 1958 article in The Hockey News, he said, “I hardly slept at all after my coach, Joe Crozier, called me at my boarding house and told me I was supposed to report to the Bruins at the Mount Royal Hotel in Montreal. I got a little rest on the train down from Quebec City, but that was all.”

One thing that O’Ree was noted for was his speed. He took to the ice wearing number 22 that Saturday evening when his team won 3-0 to become the first black player in the NHL. However, the reaction wasn’t all that great in the media next day. It could be that because the event took place in a country where racial issues weren’t that big a deal. The Montreal fans didn’t really treat it as anything spectacular either because they had seen O’Ree play quite often for the Aces when they came to take on the hometown Royals in QHL games, and before that as a junior against the Junior Canadiens. In the game, O’Ree came very close to getting his first NHL goal when he took a pass from Jerry Toppazzini and used his speed to sweep around the defense. At the last split-second, he was hooked by Tom Johnson--who received a 2-minute penalty for his effort--just before taking a clear shot on goalie Jacques Plante.

O’Ree played the next night in Boston too against Montreal and wasn’t called up again to the Bruins until mid-way through 1960-61 when he appeared in 43 games. There, he collected 4 goals and 10 assists on a line with veterans Toppazzini and Don McKenney.  By 1961 they were calling him “The Jackie Robinson of hockey.” Some people were saying that it was about time for a black man in hockey, the whitest of all sports. And why not? Baseball, football and basketball had them. O’Ree didn’t find the NHL easy for a black man. He took a lot of cheap shots to see how he’d react. In turn, he gave it right back. He wasn’t a fighter, but he did his share of sticking up for himself. “I was determined I wasn’t going to be run out of the rink,” he said.
Milt Schmidt, Willie O'Ree's only NHL coach,
in his playing days with Boston

One night in Chicago he took a butt-end to the face from Eric Nesterenko that knocked out 2 of his teeth and gave him a broken nose. With his blood all over the place, O’Ree clubbed the Hawk over the head just above his eye. Then both benches cleared. Nesterenko later received 15 stitches. While fans in Montreal and Toronto were generally quite civilized, those in Chicago, Detroit, and New York really gave it to him. In Chicago, he heard such things as “Go back to the South’ and “Why aren’t yuh picking cotton?” In Boston, the fans treated him very well, as did the players. He was an equal. One of the boys. His greatest moment was late in the third period on New Year’s Night in Boston, in a game against Montreal. He took a pass on the fly, swept around the defense, and scored a low shot on Jacques Plante. The fans gave him a 2-minute standing ovation.

When the season ended, Boston coach Milt Schmidt and GM Lynn Patrick told him they were impressed with him and to go home, have a good summer, and be ready in the fall for the 1961-62 season. For the last few years, he had been getting lots of encouragement from people in pursuing hockey…Phil Watson, his junior coach in Quebec City, Jack Stewart his coach in Kitchener, Punch Imlach and Joe Crozier with the Aces, and now the Bruins. During the season, Schmidt announced to Boston reporters, “Willie’s got all the equipment a good professional needs and some splendid advantages…I hope he’ll be with us a long time…He’s one of the fastest skaters in the NHL.”

O’Ree thought he had arrived. His family and friends were happy for him. O’Ree was living by what his dad had once told him, “Find a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Then several weeks later at his mother’s home, he got a phone-call from a sportswriter.

“Willie, what do you think of the trade?” he asked.

“What trade?”

“You’ve been traded to the Montreal Canadians.”

“I have?”

With all the talent the Canadiens had, O’Ree knew he was destined for Montreal’s farm team and told the writer such. And that’s exactly where Montreal did send him…the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens of the Eastern Pro League. The trade went like this…O’Ree and Stan Maxwell headed to the Canadiens for Cliff Pennington and Terry Gray. The whole thing left O’Ree disappointed that Boston could not have informed him on the trade before the media got hold of the news. He deserved that much after the great build-up from Milt Schmidt. Then in November, after 12 games in Hull-Ottawa, O’Ree  was traded again, this time for cash to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League. Even though O’Ree had played a total of 45 games in the NHL, the six-team league may still not have been ready for a black man on a regular basis. Or maybe his eye secret was out…

Shortly after arriving in California, Blades coach Alf Pike asked him, “Willie, have you ever played right wing?”

“No, I’m a left-hand shot. I’ve played left wing my whole career.”

“We’ll, I’ve got too many left wingers. Why don’t you give it a try on the right side. We could use your speed over there.”

So, O’Ree tried it and liked it, to his surprise. The boards were on the right, his blind side. He didn’t have to look over his shoulder to take a pass anymore. He did find it hard at first taking passes on his backhand, but after a few games he got used to it. Outside of a brief 50-game stint with the AHL New Haven Nighthawks in 1972-73, he played the rest of his 21-year pro career at right wing on the west coast, mostly with the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls,  taking  2 Western Hockey League scoring titles, scoring at least 30 goals 4 times, and making 4 all-star teams. He retired from the game in 1979 at the age of 43. Not bad for a hockey player with one working eye. The most he had ever banked in a season was $17,500. A fan favorite in San Diego, the Gulls retired his number and it’s now hanging from the San Diego Sports Arena rafters.

Today, O’Ree lives in San Diego, a city he had always loved. Besides the mild weather, one of the reasons he chose the city was the enthusiasm of the fans when he played there starting 1967-68. It felt like home. “They were averaging 9,000 to 10,000 fans per game. The place was just a rockin’.”

I remember watching O’Ree play a game or 2 in that 1960-61 season on our black-and-white TV in Regina, Saskatchewan. I was only 9 at the time, but an image of him on the ice is somewhere in the back of my mind. I didn’t have a hockey card of him, however, because there never was one printed,  as I found out later. In those years, two gum companies had control of the 6-team-NHL card business. Parkhurst had the rights to Montreal, Toronto, and Detroit, while Topps had New York, Chicago and Boston. Alas, there was a Bee Hive photo of O’Ree available and it’s in this article for your viewing pleasure.

According to O’Ree, he  saw Jackie Robinson in person on 2 occasions. The first time was 1949 when O’Ree was 14. His Fredericton baseball team went to New York City. They visited tourist attractions such as Radio Music Hall, Coney Island, the Empire State Building, and Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, where Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers played. After a  game, O’Ree shook Robinson’s hand. “I play hockey, too, Mr. Robinson,” O’Ree informed the star.

Robinson seemed surprised that a black youngster played hockey, then said, “Whatever sport you choose, work hard and do your best.”

The next time was 13 years later at a NAACP luncheon in Los Angeles, seven years after Robinson had retired from baseball. Now with the Los Angeles Blades, O’Ree was introduced to Robinson, who looked at O’Ree for a couple moments, then said, “You’re the young fellow I met in Brooklyn.”

After O’Ree, the next black player to make it to the NHL was Mike Marson of the Washington Capitals in 1974.  It took that long. Between 1958-1991, 18 black players performed in the NHL. But well before Marson and O’Ree there were two very good Canadian-born black players…Herb Carnegie, a fast-skating, scoring terror who played his best years in senior circles in Quebec …and Art Dorrington, who was actually the first black to sign with an NHL club (not O’Ree) when he inked his name to a New York Ranger contract in 1950. Although he scored his share of goals the next half-dozen years, Dorrington never got any further than the EHL and IHL. Since these mentioned notables had hit the ice, we’ve seen Grant Fuhr, Donald Brashear, Mike Grier, Ray Emery, PK Subban…

NOTE: Here’s a little fact that most hockey fans don’t know…at the age of 36, O’Ree was selected by the Los Angeles Sharks in the original World Hockey Association player draft, 12 February 1972.

Herb Carnegie, Art Dorrington, and Willie O’Ree  were all pioneers in their sport who would be stars in today’s NHL. They were just born too soon.