willie o’ree, 1961: scored that one for the whole town of fredericton

Like Bronco Advised: With Montreal defenceman Jean-Guy-Talbot looking on, Willie O’Ree scores his first NHL goal, a game-winner, on Charlie Hodge, January 1, 1961.

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 the 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.

As a Hull-Ottawa Canadian, 1960.

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.” Continue reading

my first hockey game: kirstie mclellan day

Hockey She Wrote: Wayne Gretzky and Kirstie McLellan Day.

Hockey squandered its best chance of snaring William Faulkner as a fan in January of 1955. I’m still not entirely sure who’s to blame for failing to catch the Nobel laureate’s imagination. Could have been the fans at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which Faulkner attended on assignment for Sports Illustrated to witness the hometown Rangers take on the all-powerful Montreal Canadiens. They were smoking, I guess, the fans, and maybe altogether too raucous for Faulkner’s placid soul. Or maybe was it the not-very-good Rangers that turned him off? Unless it was hockey itself: “discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical,” he called it when he wrote it all up.

In a book I wrote a few years ago about the spells that hockey casts, and the shadows, I spent some time with Faulkner — Ernest Hemingway, too — trying to suss out just how they could have failed to have been enchanted by hockey. I also wrote about Evelyn, Viscountess Byng of Vimy in Puckstruck, and how the first hockey game she saw hooked her for life.

This was in Ottawa in 1921, in the first fall of her husband’s tenure as governor-general. The visiting Toronto St. Patricks beat the Senators 5-4. “It was one of the cleanest games on record,” a local newspaper reported next morning, “not a player decorating the penalty box. The checking was heavy and the ceaseless pace a menace to temper-control, but all turned in a splendid record.” Babe Dye scored a couple of goals for the winning team, and Ken Randall scored a couple of others. Also on the ice were Clint Benedict, Frank Nighbor, Frank Boucher. Ottawa captain Eddie Gerard presented Lady Byng with a bouquet of American Beauty roses.

It may be that this first exposure to hockey, pacey yet peaceable, set the standard by which Lady Byng judged the sport from there on after. When subsequent games didn’t meet the mark, did she see no other alternative than to save the game from itself by donating her trophy for skilled, gentlemanly conduct?

Hard to say. I don’t, in general, know what these initial exposures to hockey reveal about the first-timer in question, or about hockey. Still, I like the idea of someone venturing for the first time into a rink, happening on hockey. What do they see? How does it hit them?

Beyond the book, I’ve continued to collect first-time accounts as I’ve come across them. I’ve written about the Dionne quintuplets, and about Henry Ford sitting in as Larry Aurie and Ebbie Goodfellow Detroit Falcons lost to Bill Cook’s New York Rangers in 1932. Browsing the file I’ve built up, I find clippings about World War I heroes of the Royal Navy attending their first hockey games, and a photograph from the night in 1995 a future king of Spain watched Doug Gilmour’s Toronto Maple Leafs slip past Theo Fleury’s Calgary Flames. I’ve got a notice here from 1936 that tells me that the entire roster of New Zealand’s vaunted rugby team, the All Blacks, saw their first NHL game at the Forum. (Canadiens and Rangers tied 1-1 that time.)

This fall, I’ve been seeking out more stories of first encounters with NHL hockey. None of them, so far, have come in from Nobel laureates or viscountesses; unlike Faulkner and Lady Byng, my correspondents were all familiar with the game, as fans or players or both, before they got to a big-league rink. They are writers and historians, journalists, poets, former players I’ve been soliciting to ask about the first NHL game they attended, who they saw, what made an impression. They’ve been generous in their responses. You’ll be seeing these recollections in this space in the coming weeks, if you keep a watch.

First up, today: Kirstie McLellan Day.

Earlier this year, BookNet Canada released a list of the 150 bestselling Canadian books since 2007. The list of authors implicated in this is an impressive one. Robert Munsch not only tops the chart with Love You Forever, he recurs throughout, with a remarkable 34 other titles. As noted by BookNet, Margaret Atwood has four books on the list, while Alice Munro and Chris Hadfield are some of those writers with three. Not so noticed: five of the bestsellers (including the top-rated hockey book) have Day’s name on the cover.

fleuryThe Calgary writer, journalist, TV host and producer has been prolific for a while. Her hockey streak started in 2009, when she worked with Theo Fleury on his autobiography, Playing With Fire. (Ranked 17th on the BookNet 150, it has outsold Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories and Stuff, The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier, and Stephen J. Harper’s A Great Game.)

Day went on to score assists on books by Bob Probert (Tough Guy in 2010) and Ron MacLean (Cornered in 2011 and Hockey Towns in 2015), and on Wayne Gretzky’s 99 Stories of the Game (2016). Still to come is Hellbent, a memoir by Marty McSorley. Kelly Hrudey’s Calling The Shots, out this fall, is her latest collaboration.

Kirstie McLellan Day, then, on the first NHL game she saw for herself.

Growing up in Regina, everybody knew somebody who had something to do with the NHL. My mom grew up across the street from “little Dickie Irvin” who became one of our very best hockey broadcasters for decades. He broke his arm climbing her family fence when he was four years old. Amazing guy. A living encyclopedia of hockey stories. Dick is now a good friend and a source for countless anecdotes in the hockey books I write. One of my dad’s best friends was Billy Hicke, who played for the Canadiens and the California Seals. Gordie Howe who was born in a farmhouse in Floral, just up the highway near Saskatoon, came to town regularly to sign autographs for kids at Simpson’s Department Store. My husband, Larry, was one of those kids. He first met Gordie when he was ten. The hockey card that Gordie signed hangs in his office.

With all those connections, hockey should have been in my blood from the start, but I was a late bloomer. Very late. It wasn’t until the Flames moved from Atlanta to Calgary in the early 80s that I started to take an interest. Don’t judge.

Larry was the anchorman at CFAC TV, the local station that carried the Flames games. He got tickets once in a while and so he dragged me to my first NHL game, April 21, 1988. The Smythe Division Finals against the hated Edmonton Oilers. Standing room only and LOUD.

I remember Wayne skating out and the crowd booing. He seemed to revel in it. And then Messier skated over with that big shit-eating grin of his, and they were laughing. Oooo, that pissed people off. We were on Wayne every time he touched the puck. Anytime he went down or skated near an official, the rink echoed with a chorus of, “Whiner! Whiner! Whiner!” Never fazed him. Just seemed to make him play harder. Wayne scored the OT winner. Damn you, Gretzky. We filed out tired, elated, and dejected.

I never dreamed that someday I’d be sitting around his kitchen table with him writing a book about it. Um, the booing and the whiner part never came up, so I’d appreciate it if you kept that part just between us.

 

(Image: Kirstie McLellan Day)