Sixty years ago today, Montreal was minus-nine and snowed under, cloudy overhead, with light flurries expected and a risk of freezing drizzle. Normal, then, for a Saturday in January. Marlon Brando’s new movie, Sayonara, was playing at Loew’s downtown. In Ottawa, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was feeling better. Having spent the week confined to his bed with a strained back, he was up and out for a short walk. All was well in the local hockey cosmos: the Montreal Canadiens, Stanley Cup champions for two years running, were once again a top the NHL standings. Coming off a 5-2 Thursday-night win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Habs were preparing to host the Boston Bruins and their newly promoted winger, 22-year-old Fredericton, New Brunswick-born Willie O’Ree.
This week, the NHL is remembering that 1958 night, the first to see a black player play in the league. O’Ree, who’s 82 now, was honoured last night and roundly cheered at Boston’s TD Garden when the modern-day Canadiens played (and lost to) the Bruins. Earlier in the day, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had proclaimed today Willie O’Ree Day across city. That was at a press conference dedicating a new street hockey rink in O’Ree’s honour.
Called up in a manpower emergency, O’Ree played only a pair of games during his first NHL stay. It would be three more years before he returned to score his first goal.
Back in ’58, the Bruins and Canadiens were spending all weekend together. Following Saturday’s game, they’d meet again Sunday in Boston. The then-dominant Canadiens were, as mentioned, cruising atop the six-team NHL, 18 points ahead of second-place Detroit, 24 clear of the languishing fifth-place Bruins.
With Leo Labine out with the flu, Boston GM Lynn Patrick summoned 22-year-old O’Ree from the Quebec Aces of the minor-league QHL. In 32 games there, he’d scored 7 goals and 18 points.
“It is believed that O’Ree is the first Negro to ever perform in the National Hockey League,” Montreal’s Gazette ventured, with nods to other black hockey talents, including Herb and Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre, star Aces of the early 1950s, as well as to O’Ree’s teammate in Quebec, centre Stan Maxwell.
Elsewhere, across North America, the headlines were bolder. “Young Negro Star Makes NHL History,” a California paper headlined a United Press story in its pages, noting “the lowering of the last color line among major sports” while also deferring to “most hockey observers” who were said to agree that the only reason there had been such a line was “the fact that there hasn’t been a Negro player qualified to make” the NHL.
O’Ree wore number 25 playing the left wing on Boston’s third line alongside Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini.
“His debut was undistinguished as Boston coach Milt Schmidt played him only half a turn at a time,” The Boston Globe recounted, “alternating him with veteran Johnny Pierson.” The thinking there? GM Patrick explained that Schmidt wanted to “ease the pressure” on O’Ree and “reduce the margin of errors for the youngster.”
Dink Carroll of Montreal’s Gazette paid most of his attention on the night to Boston’s new signing, the veteran Harry Lumley, “chubby goalkeeper who looks like a chipmunk with a nut in each cheek.” O’Ree he recognized as “a fleet skater” who had one good scoring chance in the third period in combination with Toppazzini. “He lost it when he was hooked from behind by Tom Johnson.”
Lumley’s revenge was registered in a 3-0 Bruins’ win. “I was really nervous in the first period,” O’Ree said, “but it was much better as the game went on.”
“It’s a day I’ll never forget as long as I live. It’s the greatest thrill of my life.”
Also making an NHL debut at the Forum that night: Prince Souvanna Phouma, the prime minister of Laos, was on hand to see the hockey sights at the end of a North American visit.
Sunday night at the Garden, O’Ree got one opening, early on, when Don McKenney fed him a leading pass. This time, O’Ree shot into Jacques Plante’s pads. With Canadiens re-asserting themselves as league-leaders with a 6-2 win, O’Ree didn’t play much in the game’s latter stages.
So that was that. Afterwards, O’Ree was reported to be grinning, sitting amid a stack of telegrams from well-wishers back home. He described himself as a “little shaky.” “I’m just happy to get a chance up here, that’s about all I can say.” Leo Labine was back at practice next day, along with another forward who’d been injured, Real Chevrefils, so after another practice or two, O’Ree returned to Quebec.
It was three years before he got back the NHL and scored his first goal. Canadiens figured prominently again, starting in the summer of 1960, when the Bruins agreed to loan the winger to Montreal. O’Ree was duly assigned to the Hull-Ottawa edition of the Canadiens, in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, where Glen Skov was the coach. The team had a good autumn, but as happens with farm teams, they paid the price in having their best talents stripped away. In November, Canadiens called up Bobby Rousseau and Gilles Tremblay while Boston beckoned O’Ree, now 25, back to the fold. The Bruins were still down at the wrong end of the standings, just a point out of last place, while also suffering adjectivally in the papers where, if they weren’t “listless” they were “punchless.”
Starting off his second stint as a Bruin, he was numbered 22, assigned to a line with Charlie Burns and Gerry Ouellette. As in 1958, newspapers (like Pittsburgh’s Courier) took due note that the “fast, aggressive forward” was “the first of his race to play in the National Hockey League.”
“The Speedy O’Ree” The New York Times annotated him when he made his Garden debut; in Chicago, the Tribune’s Ted Damata was particularly attentive. “The first Negro” was “on the ice four times, three times as a left winger and once as a right winger. He touched the puck twice, losing it each time, once on a hefty body check by Jack Evans of the Hawks.”
A sprained neck put him in Boston’s Newton-Wellesley Hospital before he was able to get his name on an NHL scoresheet. Then, just as he was set to return, he went down with a throat infection. His coach was pleased to get him back just before Christmas. “He was just starting to fit into our operation when we lost him,” said Milt Schmidt, who juggled him into a line with Bronco Horvath and Andre Pronovost. He got his first NHL points, a pair of assists, December 22 in 4-2 Boston win over Chicago.
Montreal was back in the mix on the first day of 1961 — as was, as it happens, Laos. The neutralist premier and hockey fan Prince Souvanna Phouma had fled to Cambodia in December and been replaced. The front page of the January 1 The Boston Globe led with the U.S. government’s warning to China and Vietnam to keep their Communist hands off the Laotian civil war.
Down at the Garden that night, the balance of power was as it had been the first time Willie O’Ree skated against Montreal. Canadiens were in first while Boston’s basement tenants were trying to muster just their eighth win in 37 games. As before, the teams were playing back-to-back games, with Montreal beating Boston 3-1 at the Forum on the Saturday night, New Year’s Eve.
“There have been few angrier — or faster — games here in quite a while,” the Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald said of Sunday’s encounter. Referee Dalton McArthur was the lead character in a disputatious game that saw him assess 92 minutes in penalties, including four fighting majors and two misconducts. Montreal got goals from Billy Hicke and Henri Richard while the Bruins counted on Johnny Bucyk, Leo Boivin, and, at 10.07 of the third period, O’Ree.
“It was a consummately skillful effort, too,” Fitzgerald wrote.
Taking a Boivin pass, while both sides were short a man, O’Ree first eluded Tom Johnson, then faked the other defenceman, Jean-Guy Talbot.
Talbot broke his stick in frustration as Willie swooped in front to beat goalie Charlie Hodge. Then he dove right in to retrieve the puck as a souvenir.
“I scored that one for the whole town of Fredericton,” the happy game-winner said later, in the dressing room. His only regret was that he hadn’t been able to do it a night earlier, when his mother and two sisters were in the crowd at the Forum.
The scoresheet credited Leo Boivin with the only assist on the goal, but O’Ree wanted to confer another on Bronco Horvath. He wasn’t on the ice at the time, true, but he’d been a key advisor on the goal. “I shoot with my wrists way out here,” O’Ree explained to the Globe’s Herb Ralby, extending his arms out in front of him by way of illustration.
“It gives me a tendency to shoot high. Saturday night in Montreal I had a great scoring chance on a pass from Horvath. But I hit Charlie Hodge in the stomach. In the pre-game warm-up tonight, I shot one high, and Bronco called me on it. He told me I’d never score that way. Shoot along the ice, he told me. He told me to shoot with my arms in closer to my body, and it would enable me to keep the puck on the ice.”
Milt Schmidt was pleased. He had big plans, he said, for O’Ree. “I’m going to use him on both left and right wing to take advantage of his speed.” GM Lynn Patrick was on board. “This boy is going to be a top player,” he’d said a few weeks earlier. “He’s got the speed and the desire to be a first-rater in this league.”
The Bruins had trouble building on that win. They won just three of their 12 remaining games in January, and just one of 11 in February, finishing the season where they’d been for most of it, in last. O’Ree played in 43 games, collecting four goals and 14 points. The last puck he put into an NHL net went past Chicago’s Glenn Hall in the Bruins’ season finale in March, a 4-3 home win. “He got a fine ovation,” Tom Fitzgerald noted, “when he delivered a low back-hander after taking the disc from Tom McCarthy with his back to the net.”
And that was all, so far as O’Ree’s NHL career went. For all Lynn Patrick’s bright talk of future prospects, in May, he traded O’Ree and Stan Maxwell to — where else? — Montreal. In return, the Bruins got cash and a pair of rookies, Cliff Pennington and Terry Gray. From Fredericton, O’Ree expressed his surprise and disappointment. Assessing the strength and depth of Montreal’s roster, he felt that his NHL days were probably over.
And he was right. While he was back that fall playing for Hull-Ottawa, this time, when he was called away, it wasn’t to NHL ice. In November of 1961, Boston papers noted with the rest of the hockey world that Montreal had sold O’Ree to the Los Angeles Blades of the WHL. As a hockey player, he was nowhere near finished, despite having lost most of the sight in his right eye before he ever skated in the NHL: it was 1979 before he finally called it quits at the age of 44.
That same year, Milt Schmidt recalled O’Ree’s Bruin debut 21 years earlier. He was still talking about his speed, though not so glowingly as he once had. “His legs were too fast for his mind,” Schmidt said. “He could really skate, and if he could have adjusted his speeds to fit the situation, he could have played. He was as fast as Lafleur, but he didn’t have the rest of the abilities.”
You won’t find any mention of the ignorance and abuse that O’Ree faced in newspaper accounts from the ’50s and ’60s of O’Ree’s short NHL tenure — I didn’t, at least. In ’79, Schmidt recalled discussing the possibilities with Lynn Patrick. “We were treading on eggs,” he said. “We prepared ourselves for the worst.” O’Ree told the Globe that he recalled being told that “things were liable to be a little rough,” and that had proved true, particularly in Detroit and Chicago. “But I really didn’t consider it too much,” O’Ree said.
Schmidt recalled one incident, at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The Globe’s Steve Marantz rendered it this way:
Before a game a few fans screamed racial slurs through an open locker-room window until the Bruins, brandishing sticks, chased them away.
“If there was more,” said Schmidt, “he never said anything.”
“You’re going to have racism, prejudice, bigotry, and ignorance all over,” O’Ree was saying yesterday in Boston. “I had it when I played, but one thing I did is I told myself that I’m just a black player playing hockey. If people can’t accept me for the individual I am … then that’s their problem, not mine.”