Saturday, 11 January 2014

‘The Jackie Robinson of Hockey’ Carried A Big Secret


Willie O'Ree, the Jackie Robinson of Hockey
(courtesy www.beehivehockey.com)


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
(Courtesy beehivehockey.com)

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.

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