(Source: Duluth News Tribune)
Had Willie O’Ree not experienced the ugliness of racism and segregation of the 1950s Deep South, he might not have broken the National Hockey League’s color barrier.
O’Ree told attendees at the third annual Pucks Against Poverty luncheon Friday at the Clyde Iron Works event center that a baseball tryout for the Milwaukee Braves in Georgia helped steer him toward hockey and eventually the distinction of being the “Jackie Robinson of the NHL.”
Not having experienced segregation in his native New Brunswick, Canada, his trip was a harsh lesson in the culture of the Deep South at the time.
“In Canada, blacks could sit on the bus anywhere — front, back or center,” said O’Ree, 76. “But when I flew into Atlanta, the first thing I noticed when I walked into the terminal was ‘White Only’ and ‘Colored Only’ restrooms.”
He soon wished he had stayed home and had to hide his relief that he didn’t make the cut.
“When I got on the bus (to return home), I had to sit on the back of the bus, which I wasn’t accustomed to,” O’Ree said. “As the bus was moving further north, I started moving further up on the bus. By the time I got to Bangor, Maine, I was sitting right at the front of the bus.
“I got back to my hometown and thought, ‘Willie, forget about baseball. Concentrate on hockey.’?”
Just a couple of years later, on Jan. 18, 1958, O’Ree suited up for the Boston Bruins and became the first black man to play in the NHL. He went on to play 45 games for the Bruins spanning two seasons, scoring four goals and dishing out 14 assists. His entire pro career — most of which was spent in the Western Hockey League — lasted 21 years.
O’Ree’s Twin Ports visit is the centerpiece to two days of Pucks Against Poverty events. Friday’s luncheon featured an array of silent auction items ranging from a hockey stick signed by members of the Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team to a Boston Bruins jersey. Afterward, people lined up to receive autographs and take pictures of O’Ree and former Bulldogs standout J.T. Brown.
Before the luncheon, O’Ree visited Proctor High School and shared his inspiring story with students and faculty members there. Duluth Mayor Don Ness also proclaimed April 20, 2012, as Willie O’Ree Day in Duluth.
Day two of Pucks Against Poverty takes place today from noon to 3 p.m. at the Heritage Sports Center and features an open skate with some members of UMD’s men’s and women’s hockey teams, puck and face painting, and autographs. O’Ree also will be on hand. The event is free and open to the public, but donations will be accepted. All proceeds will help Community Action Duluth’s fight against poverty.
Following the advice of a brother, O’Ree said he learned how to filter out “racism, prejudice, bigotry and ignorance” as he attacked his goal of playing professional hockey. “He said, ‘If you set your goal for yourself and stay focused on what you want to do, everything else will fall into
That advice proved valuable.
“I had the pleasure of playing under some great coaches, and all of them told me the same thing: ‘Willie, there hasn’t been a black player in the National Hockey League, but you have the skills and ability to break that barrier,’?” he said. “All I wanted to do was play hockey and represent the hockey club to the best of my ability. So all the racism, prejudice, bigotry and ignorance that I had to deal with, I just let it go in one ear and out the other.”
O’Ree’s inner strength and determination blazed a trail for other black players to follow him to the NHL, including Brown.
“I’ve never met him before, but I’ve known what he’s done for the game of hockey,” said Brown, fresh off playing a handful of games for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. “For me, it’s just something special to be here and actually be able to meet him and talk with him.”
The significance of being the latest black player to join the NHL is not lost on Brown. Fewer than 4 percent of the league’s players are black.
“It’s something you always think about,” he said. “The numbers obviously are not that great as far as that goes in hockey. I’m going to pick his brain a little bit and see what it was like for him.”
Following his pro career, O’Ree has spent the past two decades promoting the sport as the NHL’s director of youth development, focusing on broadening the league’s diversity through the “Hockey is for Everyone” program.
“I wouldn’t have stayed with the NHL’s diversity program for 14 years if I thought it didn’t work,” said O’Ree, who now lives in San Diego. “It really is a good program.”
For only $50 annually, a child can receive hockey equipment and learn to play the game O’Ree is so passionate about. Participants receive rides to and from the rink for practices and games. If they don’t know how to skate, they are taught how.
“I’ve not had one boy or girl come up to me and say, ‘Oh, Mr. O’Ree, I don’t like this,’?” he said. “So, I’ve got a pretty good record going. We let them know this is a game they can play.”
O’Ree said he wants to return to Duluth next year with the “Hockey Is For Everyone” initiative in tow.
That’s an exciting possibility to Xavier Bell, director of community engagement for Community Action Duluth. Immediately after the event, Bell organized a meeting with O’Ree, Ness and a handful of community leaders to determine how to bring the program here.
“The path that Mr. O’Ree carved for J.T. is a big deal,” Bell told the luncheon’s attendees. “I wish there wasn’t ever a need to carve a path at all. As a community, we are moving toward that, so that the reality of injustice, racism and those aspects of oppression are eliminated. So that when people think of Duluth, they think of it as a really cool place to hang out, regardless of who are you, regardless of what your culture is.”
Bell said “Hockey Is For Everyone” would be a vital step in that regard.
“When you think that we might have the next J.T. Brown in Duluth, but he just can’t afford ice time or just can’t afford equipment, I don’t think we could live with ourselves.”
(Source: Duluth News Tribune)