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

seeing red

There are uglier hockey photographs, bloodier, brutaller. But this intimate image of Red Kelly lashing out at Toronto’s Vic Lynn in Detroit in 1950 has to be one of the most intense portraits in the archives of raw hockey rage. The fact that it’s not quite in focus only adds to the rush of the moment, and the danger. It’s a hard photograph to study without flinching: Kelly might just follow through and hit you. And of course what we’re looking at is likely only the half of it, in terms of rage: the camera doesn’t show the extent of Lynn’s ire, much less any of the general rancor and violent feeling that had filled up the Olympia that night.

It was the end of March, 1950, and the Leafs and Red Wings were playing their second game in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Toronto had won the first game in Detroit by a score of 5-0. This game went the other way, 3-1. A subhead in next morning’s (Toronto) Globe and Mail:

Detroiters Bludgeon Way To Boisterous Victory In Mean-Mannered Game

It wasn’t just the loss motivating the Red Wings. That first game was the one in which 21-year-old Gordie Howe was grievously injured. Trying to hit Toronto Leaf captain Ted Kennedy, he, Howe, fell into the boards. The Globe and Mail called it a mishap, reporting that he’d suffered a “stiff concussion” along with a shattered cheekbone and a broken nose.

Detroit GM Jack Adams told it this way, later, to Trent Frayne from Maclean’s:

Toronto’s Ted Kennedy was carrying the puck near the boards. Howe sped toward him, cutting diagonally across the ice. A fraction of a second before the impact, Kennedy drew himself up, and Howe crashed headlong into the boards. Gordie lay limp on the ice, bleeding from his nose and eye. Later, in hospital, there was every indication that he was dying. He was unconscious, vomiting, had a broken cheekbone and nose, and a brain specialist operated, boring a hole into his skull to remove fluid pressing on the brain. We paced the corridor all night. Even the next day his condition was critical.

The Red Wings said it was Kennedy’s dirty fault. They said that Kennedy had butt-ended Howe.

Why did Kennedy pass by the Detroit bench to say sorry? That, for Red Wings coach Tommy Ivan, was all the confession he needed. “If he didn’t hit Howe with his stick, why did he skate over and apologize? I’m not saying it was deliberate, but it was a check made with the butt-end of Kennedy’s stick. He isn’t the only player in the league who checks with the butt. Lots of them do.”

Kennedy testified: “I was skating in to shoot when Howe and Jack Stewart of the Wings converged to check me. I got by them all right and never touched Howe. The first I knew of it was when a teammate shouted to me that Howe was down on the ice.”

The Leafs’ Garth Boesch offered, helpfully, that he thought that maybe Stewart might have inadvertently clipped Howe with his stick.

Kennedy: “I saw Howe lying on the ice with his face covered with blood, and I couldn’t help but think what a great player he was and how I hoped he wasn’t badly hurt. Then Detroit players started saying I did it with my stick. I knew I hadn’t and as I have always regarded Ivan as a sensible, level-headed man, I went over to the Detroit bench and told him I was sorry Howe was hurt, but that I wasn’t responsible.”

Sid Abel said what he had to say on the ice, chopping at Kennedy’s ankle when the game resumed. He took a slashing penalty for that. After that, Leaf coach Hap Day kept Kennedy on the bench.

NHL president Clarence Campbell, who was at the game, made it known that he was looking into the incident. He talked to both teams and called the game officials to his hotel for a two-hour confab, referee George Gravel and stand-by Butch Keeling, linesmen Sammy Babcock and Ernie Le Maitre. The first three gave formal statements; Le Maitre said he didn’t see what happened. Then Campbell gave a press conference: the first ever in league history, he said, to be called to discuss an injury to a player.

Campbell’s version: Jack Stewart started up the ice with the puck. Kennedy checked him, took the puck the other way. Stewart tried to waylay him, failed. Just as Kennedy crossed the blueline, Howe cut toward him, skating fast. Kennedy passed the puck, backhand. Brushing Kennedy slightly, Howe crashed heavily into the fence, fell to the ice. Stewart fell on top of him as the play continued.

Campbell said he believed the evidence showed that it was physically impossible for Kennedy to have hit How with the butt of his stick. He chided Tommy Ivan, but understood, assuming he’d accused Kennedy “in a fit of anger.”

Campbell said he was keeping the investigation open: “We are willing to hear evidence from any interested parties and will not make any final decision until we talk to Kennedy and Howe. It may be that one of the player’s statements would offer other facts that would throw an entirely different light on the case.”

Doctors weren’t sure, at this point, whether Howe’s career was over. They were reluctant to say.

Gordie’s mother had a sunnier outlook. “He seemed just like my old Gordie,” Mrs. A.C. Howe told the newspapermen after visiting her boy at Harper Hospital. She’d flown in from Saskatoon with her daughter, Gladys. “His first words were, ‘Why, mom, what are you doing here?’”

Another terribly head-injured hockey player was asked for an opinion. “Helmets are not necessary,” Ace Bailey said. “Hockey players carry so much armor already, they can’t bear any more.”

Toronto’s mayor, Hiram McCallum, phoned Ted Kennedy in Detroit to say the things that mayors say. The people were behind him. They knew he was blameless. “They are 100 per cent behind you all the way and know you will go on and continue to play wonderful hockey.”

“We regret very much the injury to Howe,” he continued, “as he is a great player, but at the same time know that he was the aggressor in attempting to crash you on the boards.”

So that’s the background. The Wings had vowed that they’d win the second game on March 30 for Howe, and they did that, but while the teams played some hockey, mostly in the first period, the second and third were the ones to generate the next day’s headlines: Blood-spilling Contest (The Globe and Mail), Pier 6 Brawl Fiasco (Toronto Daily Star), Free-For-All Fights Bring 19 Penalties as Detroit Six Evens Play-off Series (New York Times).

In the second period, with his team leading 3-0, Detroit defenceman Lee Fogolin tripped Ted Kennedy. As referee Butch Keeling whistled a penalty, Ted Lindsay showed up to cross-check the Leaf captain. Leaf Gus Mortson: flew at Lindsay. Sid Abel: rushed in, fists flying. Grabbing Kennedy and holding him to help out the Wings: an irresponsible fan. Wing Leo Reise: bludgeoned Jim Thomson across the head and shoulders with his stick. Jim Vipond from The Globe and Mail called it “a donnybrook of the worst order and a black mark against organized hockey.”

He went on:

This writer has often avowed that no player would intentionally injure another, but not after tonight. There could be nothing more brutal and deliberate than the Detroit players’ attempt to even a trumped-up injustice to one of their mates.

Out of it all, Reise and Thomson drew majors and Lindsay, Kennedy and Fogolin two minutes each. Abel escaped scot free, as did battler Mortson.

The Leafs scored in the third, but it was the last-minute melee that got all the press. To start, Lindsay and Bill Ezinicki exchanged a few wallops. Everybody piled in then, including Red Wings’ usually even-tempered defenceman: Red Kelly. He started a separate feud with Vic Lynn, which gets us back to that original image. Is it possible that the photographer was on the ice, standing just behind Lynn? Probably not. Below, we see, remarkably, what would seem to be the instant of Kelly’s onslaught from behind. Vipond says that Kelly’s victory was decisive: Kelly “tossed Lynn to the ice, straddled him and threw his punches.”

The referee wasn’t impressed — or not watching. “Again Keeling was lenient to the extreme. He pinned minor sentences on Ezinicki, Juzda and Lindsay, sending them to their dressing rooms. It is doubtful if Keeling saw the Kelly-Lynn preliminary bout.”

Ted Kennedy wasn’t talking much afterwards. “The game’s over,” he said. “They won it.”

“Such violence hardly seems possible in sport. Yet there it was.” The next day, The Globe and Mail devoted its lead editorial to lament, excoriating the Red Wings for their outrages, the referees for not punishing them properly, the NHL for not taking a tough enough stand: For The Good of the Game was the headline.

Tommy Ivan insisted he hadn’t instructed his players to go after anyone. “I can only repeat that I did not have any thought of my players seeking revenge. You can confirm this statement by talking to my players. Responsible lads like Red Kelly will back me up.”

Clarence Campbell warned that the feuding had to stop. If it continued, he said, there would be fines and suspensions. Also, for the third game, he was putting an extra referee on the ice in place of one of one of the linesmen. And any player bickering on his way to the penalty box would receive a misconduct.

“Hockey is a tough and rugged game at the best of times,” Campbell said, “but the stick-swinging which took place … has no place in the game at any time.”

That seemed to help: for the third game, in Toronto, lapsed back to hockey. “In contrast to the blood-letting, brawls and bickering of the initial two tilts in Detroit,” Al Nickleson wrote in The Globe and Mail, “only three minor penalties were issued, two to Leafs, in a sparkling, close-checking display.”

The Wings won the one after that. By then, Howe was ready to speak up. A week after his brain surgery, his doctors had removed the No Visitors Allowed sign from the door of his hospital room, and he was free to tell reporters what he knew. It wasn’t a whole lot. “All I remember is chasing after Kennedy. I don’t remember being struck or hitting the boards.”

“Kennedy is too good a hockey player to deliberately injure another player.”

On the subject of his future, he promised he’d be back. “Sure, I’ll be playing next season — a player has got to expect a few bumps.”

The Red Wings ended up winning the series in seven games. By the end of April, they’d won the Stanley Cup, their fourth, beating the New York Rangers in seven games. When Clarence Campbell handed the trophy to Wings’ captain Sid Abel, the fans in the rink called for goaltender Harry Lumley to join him. Then they insisted on GM Jack Adams, coach Ivan, and vice-president Jim Norris. Finally the cry arose: “We want Howe,” and Gordie Howe walked out on the ice in his street clothes.

Red Notice: In a view from the other side of the ice, Red Kelly, wearing 4, at left, unleashes on the Leafs' Vic Lynn.

Red Notice: In a view from the other side of the ice, Red Kelly, at left, unleashes on the Leafs’ Vic Lynn.