must be some misunderstanding
“Sure, I was nervous,” said the 23-year-old rookie, “but it was the greatest thrill of my life.”
It was on a Saturday night in Montreal, January 18, 1958, that Fredericton, New Brunswick’s own Willie O’Ree made his NHL debut at the Forum, manning the left wing for the Boston Bruins and becoming, as he did so, the first Black player in the league’s then-40-year-old history.
The NHL observed the anniversary of O’Ree’s historic breakthrough this January past with decals on helmets that players across the league started wearing on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S. “Celebrating Equality,” they read; they’ll be on display through the end of February, which is Black History Month across North America.
O’Ree, who’s now 85, will be further honoured on February 18, when the Bruins plan to raise his number, 22, to the rafters of TD Garden ahead of a game with the New Jersey Devils.
That was the number he eventually wore. For his debut in January of ’58, O’Ree was on call-up duty, summoned from the QHL Quebec Aces to replace a flu-bitten Leo Labine in the Boston line-up for a home-and-home weekend series.
For those games, O’Ree sported number 18.
At the Forum, he skated on a line with Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini. The Bruins won that first of them 3-0, with Johnny Bucyk putting the winner past Jacques Plante. Sunday night in Boston, Bernie Geoffrion collected a pair of goals and a brace of assists as Montreal roared back with a 6-2 win.
O’Ree had a respectable 13 goals and 32 points that year with Quebec, but this initial stint of his in the NHL yielded nothing in the way of statistics. It would be another few years before he got a steady chance to play in the NHL, 1960-61, during which he donned number 22 in 43 games for Boston, notching four goals and 14 points.
Can we talk about this? Not the numbers O’Ree wore on his various sweaters, or the stats he registered, but his debut, how it was received, the idea of a “colour line” in hockey, and the fictions by which the sport’s establishment (including the press) deluded itself? Also, for good measure, maybe we’d continue a little further along, back a few years before 1958, and consider the odd instance of Herb Carnegie’s not-quite chance at playing in the NHL.
When Willie O’Ree first skated for the Bruins 63 years ago, note was taken, though the debut wasn’t universally hailed as a long-due turning point.
Many press reports noted the occasion as they did most matters of movements of NHL personnel, which is to say, in passing. Bill O’Ree, a couple of them called him; a United Press dispatch helpfully noted that he went by both names, Willie and Bill, and that his christened name was William Eldon O’Ree.
Montreal’s La Presse rolled out an eight-column headline across its sports page:
Pour La Première Fois, Un Joueur Noir Évoluera Dans La NHL Ce Soir
The English-language Gazette wasn’t so certain — they only “believed” that O’Ree was the first Black player in the NHL, reminding readers (in case they hadn’t noticed) that there had been, to date, “comparatively few” Black players in hockey.
Toronto’s Globe and Mail and Star both headlined O’Ree’s achievement in their sports sections.
The Boston Globe’s coverage was initially more muted: a United Press game report that ran on Sunday, January 19 highlighted O’Ree’s historic debut while rating his performance “undistinguished, as Boston coach played him only half a turn a time, alternating him with veteran Johnny Peirson.”
Columnist Tom Fitzgerald followed after Sunday’s game with a friendly, first-hand piece. “Boston fans constantly shouted encouragement to O’Ree on his appearances last night,” he wrote, “although he did not see much action in the later stages.”
“He’s a very fast skater,” Bruins GM Lynn Patrick observed, “but there are some things he naturally has to learn yet.”
Fitzgerald noted that the Bruins were hoping that Stan Maxwell, a centre from Truro, Nova Scotia, who was a teammate of O’Ree’s in Quebec and also Black, would soon be making his NHL debut. (Update: he never did.)
If this was a time, the opportunity ripe, for the NHL and the hockey establishment supporting it to reckon with questions of race, accessibility, systemic racism … well, no, there’s no evidence that any such discussion (let alone introspection) occurred.
It was ever thus. Those subjects just don’t figure in the recorded history of the early NHL. A 1928 comment attributed to Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, qualifies an outright rarity: unlike major-league baseball, he was indirectly said to have suggested, his league drew no colour line, nor was it likely to do so.
True: no such prohibition appeared in the NHL’s Constitution or By-Laws. But: it was also one of Calder’s owners, Conn Smythe of Toronto Maple Leafs, who’s alleged to have watched 19-year-old junior star Herb Carnegie (who was Black) skate at Maple Leafs Gardens in 1938, telling Carnegie’s coach that he, Smythe, would sign Carnegie in a minute for the NHL — if only he were white. (In another version, Smythe is supposed to have said he would pay $10,000 to anyone who could “turn Carnegie white.”)
No-one was talking about that in 1958. Another United Press wire story out of Montreal that January weekend did venture to mention Willie O’Ree debut in the context of “the lowering of the last colour line among major sports in North America” … even as reporter Dick Bacon ramped up to a ready rationale that the problem actually resided with Black players themselves: they just weren’t good enough.
“Most hockey observers point out,” he blithely concluded, “that the only reason a ‘colour line’ existed was that there hasn’t been a Negro player qualified to make the National Hockey League.”
Lest anyone have trouble interpreting that view, The Hockey News made sure to boost the signal a couple of weeks later. In the edition dated February 1, 1958, writer Len Bramson kicked off THN’s coverage of Willie O’Ree’s arrival in the NHL with this astonishing take:
Willie O’Ree became the first Negro to play in the National Hockey League, but his presence on the NHL scene didn’t mean that a barrier had been broken, as was the case of Jackie Robinson, the first Negro ever to break into the major leagues. The fact that there has never been a Negro in the NHL prior to O’Ree must be blamed on the Negro race itself. No Negro, until O’Ree came along had the ability to play in the big time.
NHL owners have never discriminated against race colour or creed. All they have ever asked for was ability on skates.
Just in case he wasn’t clear enough with this, Bramson saw fit, midway through this THN piece, to fold in Dick Bacon and his previous United Press reporting on O’Ree — including, verbatim, Bacon’s own observation about the mysterious lack of Black players of NHL quality.
Otherwise, following his own mention of ability on skates, Bramson went on to cite Herb Carnegie and his older brother, Ossie, from Toronto, both of whom had retired in the mid-1950s after long minor-league careers.
Of course, neither of them ever did play on NHL ice — while Herb was invited to attend the New York Rangers’ training camp in 1948, he turned down several of the team’s offers for minor-league contracts, opting to return to play for the Sherbrooke Saints of the Quebec Provincial Senior League.
“There was no doubt in my mind, then or now,” Carnegie wrote in his 1997 memoir, “that I was every bit as good as the most talented player on that team. Except that I had once more been stopped by the colour barrier. The Rangers and its [sic] management were unable to look beyond the colour of my skin.”
Which gets us back to the matter, mentioned a little way back, of a slightly earlier time in the younger Carnegie’s career, another chance at breaking through to the NHL that actually seems to have been … an illusion?
It’s a decidedly odd episode that I haven’t seen mentioned before: it’s not in that memoir of Carnegie’s, A Fly In A Pail of Milk (which appeared in a new edition in 2019), nor does it surface in Cecil Harris’ Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey (2007).
March of 1947 this was. As a point of pertinent context, 28-year-old Jackie Robinson made his big-league baseball debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April of that year, having spent the previous season with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ International League affiliate.
Herb Carnegie was 27 that spring. He and Ossie, who was 29, were both playing in the QPSHL for the Sherbrooke Saint-François (as they were called that year), playing on a line with Manny McIntyre, from Gagetown, New Brunswick, who was also Black. Herb would lead the team in scoring that season, collecting 33 goals and 83 points, and for the second year in a row he’d be named league MVP.
So it’s not so surprising that the Montreal Canadiens wanted to sign him — if they did.
As March was winding down, so too was the NHL’s regular season. Looking forward to defending the Stanley Cup they’d won in 1946, Montreal was cruising towards the playoffs in first place, ten points up on the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But. Injuries were starting to mount. Star centre Elmer Lach had been out three months with a broken cheek-bone. In mid-March, they lost the man who’d taken his place on the first-line, Buddy O’Connor: he broke his cheek in a particularly raucous game against the Rangers in New York. Defenceman Ken Reardon and winger George Allen were also banged up, and while it looked like they would be ready for the post-season, O’Connor’s status remained iffy.
And so, according to Montreal broadcaster Larry O’Brien, Canadiens coach Dick Irvin was looking to call in Herb Carnegie. He’d discussed it with club officials, declaring himself “most impressed” by the Sherbrooke centre’s skills.
O’Brien is an interesting figure. He was a crime reporter for The Montreal Star as well as a broadcaster, calling Canadiens hockey on the radio and Royals ballgames, too. He also stood in as a regular batting-practice pitcher for the Royals, and as such had thrown to Jackie Robinson in ’46. That was one of O’Brien’s proudest memories, he later said. He also ended up helping Robinson and his wife, Rachel, find an apartment. O’Brien would call the first TV broadcast of a sporting event in Canada, a Royals game in 1952, and later worked Grey Cup games and Stanley Cup finals. He went on to run the Canadian Open golf tournament for a decade, and spent years, subsequently, as Jack Nicklaus’ publicist.
In March of ’47, O’Brien seems to have been in New York for the CBC in his role as Canadiens broadcaster. The NHL’s board of governor’s was meeting in Manhattan, too, on Monday, March 17, and that’s where O’Brien said he got his scoop that Carnegie and the Canadiens were about to make history.
The news rippled across North America. Most of the headlines, it’s true, were tentative, touting Carnegie’s promotion to the NHL as a possibility. Someone saw fit to ask Boston Bruins president Weston Adams about the whole situation — I guess because Montreal was due to meet Boston in the playoffs? Anyway, Adams’ strange sign-off, declaration of permission, blessing — whatever it was, it was duly broadcast around the continent as well.
“It makes no difference to us what race or creed a player is,” Adams said. “If he’s a good player and can help the Canadiens that’s all the interest we have in the matter.”
Montreal’s interest, as it turned out, was not so much. Dick Irvin was quickly on record saying that the whole thing was a “misunderstanding.” How so? He made clear that there would be no other comment: it was just a misunderstanding.
O’Brien, for his part, stood fast, insisting that his information was correct.
And Carnegie … stayed where he was. Instead of joining Montreal for their Wednesday loss in Toronto or the following Saturday’s defeat at the hands of Chicago, Carnegie suited up for Sherbrooke as they launched into the provincial-league finals against the Lachine Rapides. On Thursday, March 20, he scored a pair of goals in his team’s 7-2 win. Going on to win the title in six games, Sherbrooke carried on to the Allan Cup playoffs, which they departed in April, losing out to the Montreal (hockey) Royals.
Making do without Carnegie, meanwhile, Canadiens called on utility forwards Hub Macey and Bobby Fillion to fill the holes in their line-up, along with rookie Leo Gravelle. Buddy O’Connor made it back to the ice for the end of Montreal’s successful first-round series against Boston and played in the finals, too, which saw the Canadiens surrender the Cup to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
What exactly happened with Carnegie’s call-up-that-never-was? Why wasn’t he the NHL’s first Black player, eleven years before Willie O’Ree, a month ahead of Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough in baseball?
It’s not entirely clear. Since the principals of the piece — Carnegie, Irvin, O’Brien — are all now gone, we only have what’s on paper. Montreal’s French-language dailies were pretty categorical: Irvin was joking, O’Brien took him seriously. As Le Canada put it (translation Google’s):
Dick Irvin didn’t believe Larry O’Brien would take him seriously when he asked him if black player Herb Carnegie would be as strong a draw in hockey as Jackie Robinson in baseball.
What Toronto Daily Star sports editor Andy Lytle put on the page at the tail of one of his columns that week in March of ’47 might be as detailed an explanation as we’re ever going to get on the whole sorry business.
Lytle and his departmental copy editors got a few basics wrong — naming Ossiewhen he meant Herb, calling Larry O’Brien Andy — but Canadiens GM Frank Selke was Lytle’s source, so his information is worth weighing.
“It’s the Robinson thing which stirs up Montreal writers,” Selke told Lytle. “Dick [Irvin] happened to say to [Larry] O’Brien if Robinson was only a hockey player, that would solve our troubles. That was enough. O’Brien decided we should use Carnegie and we weren’t even consulted. The idea, of course, is ridiculous.”
If only Lytle had pressed there — ridiculous? what, exactly, was ridiculous? — but Lytle didn’t press. Selke trundled on.
“We’re not too bad,” he said. “We finished on top and we have some hockey players left.”
Getting to the end of that update in the Star, readers might have let their attention drift to the top of the page, which featured a photograph of Jackie Robinson, his wife, and their baby, Jackie Jr.
The baseball pioneer’s future was still not decided. In that baseball pre-season, he remained a Montreal Royal, with Brooklyn GM Branch Rickey telling reporters that he hadn’t yet decided whether or not Robinson had earned a spot with the Dodgers. Rickey had a couple of weeks before the season got underway to make his mind up, the Starstory said, and Rickey suggested he’d make full use of that time.
“Robinson’s record with Montreal Royals last season would have automatically sent him to the Dodgers,” the Star piously opined on the very day that the possibility of Carnegie’s NHL debut tagged as a jest, “except for that unadmitted bar, the old American one of prejudice against colour.”
Note: While press style of the 1940s and ’50s consistently has newspapers Canadian and otherwise going with the American spelling of color, it has been rendered here throughout as colour.
buddy o’connor: a hart, a byng, a razzle dazzle past
Buddy O’Connor was 25 when he finally made his NHL debut with the Canadiens, in November of 1941.
By then, he’d been starring for years with the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior League, and indeed on the night he premiered in the NHL in a game against Boston at the Forum, the rookies he was centering were his old Royals linemates, Pete Morin and Gerry Heffernan. The home team lost on the night, 3-1, to the defending Stanley Cup champions, but local hopes were boosted by the promise of O’Connor, who scored Montreal’s lone goal, and his mates. “The smart young forward line” rated a column unto itself in the Montreal Gazette in the days that followed, where it was noted that they’d been previously been known as the Royals’ Razzle-Dazzle Line, and wherein O’Connor explained how he liked to drive straight for opposing defencemen, rather than detour around them. “I try to go where the other defence is and any of their other players happen to be simply to keep ’em bunched,” he told Marc McNeil that night, “and leave Gerry and Pete free. Sometimes when I’m down there first I can keep the defence so busy watching me that they won’t notice the others, but I always know Pete and Gerry will be along presently to pick up any pass I can get out there. So I just do it by habit; I can depend upon my linemates. That’s all there is to it.”
McNeil also took down the jocular rebuke O’Connor got from Morin after he’d said his piece: “You shouldn’t have done it, Bud, giving away all our secrets. All these NHL clubs will get wised up to us right away, and we’ll be no good at all.”
Morin played just a single season with Canadiens before joining the RCAF’s war effort, while Heffernan stuck around for parts of three: in his last campaign, 1943-44, he scored 28 goals and 48 points, finishing up just six points shy of teammates O’Connor and Maurice Richard on the Montreal scoring rolls.
Born in Montreal on a Wednesday of this date in 1916, Buddy O’Connor lasted longer in the NHL than his linemates, and proved himself to be a consistent scorer in his six years with Canadiens. He helped the team win Stanley Cups in 1944 and 1946.
But it was after a 1947 trade took him to the New York Rangers that O’Connor truly flourished. In 1947-48, at the age of 31, O’Connor not only finished second in NHL scoring behind his old Montreal teammate Elmer Lach, but won both the Hart Trophy (as league MVP) and the Lady Byng (for high + gentlemanly achievement). Throughout his career, he was as rule-abiding as NHL players come, accumulating just 34 total minutes of punishment over the course of his 509 career regular-season games. He played two entire seasons without taking a single penalty, and in three more took just one in each. The season he got the Byng, edging out Toronto’s Syl Apps, O’Connor ran relatively amok, amassing eight whole minutes in 60 games.
O’Connor played three more years with the Rangers after that high-tide season. He served as team captain in 1949-50, just for a year, before he was succeeded by defenceman Frank Eddolls — replaced, one report had it, “because he wasn’t a holler guy.”
O’Connor died at the age of 61 in 1977, so his call to hockey’s Hall of Fame came posthumously. That was in 1988, when the Hall introduced what it called a Veterans Category, to see that players who’d been out of the game for more than 25 years weren’t entirely forgotten. O’Connor was the first be so recognized, and he ascended to hockey’s Pantheon in distinguished company, alongside Guy Lafleur, Brad Park, and Tony Esposito.
Ten other players would eventually be inducted as Veterans, including both Lionel and Roy Conacher, Harry Watson, and Clint Smith, before the Hall saw fit to nix the classification in 2000. “The board believes the category fully served its useful purpose and should now be eliminated,” Hall chairman Bill Hay said at the time. “It only makes sense to merge the veteran player category with the Player Category, since the player attributes criteria of the two categories are identical.”
In the new streamlined regime, a maximum of four players could be inducted each year. The current set-up, which we’ll see in action later this week, makes provision for a maximum of five men to be inducted as Players along with two women.
Is it time for the Hall to think about resurrecting the Veterans Category? The whole process of deciding who might be worthy of a place among the anointed is, has been, and ever more will be a vexed one, but it is true that there are deserving players from hockey’s remoter past — Claude Provost, for instance, Lorne Chabot, or John Ross Roach — who seem to be at an annual disadvantage merely because their careers ended long ago. To keep on forgetting them, and others, looks careless for an institution that’s supposed to be devoted to remembering the game’s best.
on a line called broken bone
When Elmer Lach first stepped up to centre the Montreal Canadiens’ powerful Punch Line in 1943, his wingers were Maurice Richard and Toe Blake. The combination was a new one, though not the name. Going back at least as far as the 1939-40 campaign, the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior Hockey League had a Punch Line of their own, with Buddy O’Connor flanking Pete Morin and Gerry Heffernan. All three of them, of course, would eventually graduate to play for the Canadiens, with O’Connor going on to win Hart and Lady Byng trophies as a New York Ranger. Then in 1942-43, when O’Connor and Heffernan were both skating for Montreal, the team’s top trio was a Punch Line featuring Lach down the middle with Blake and Joe Benoit as his wingers. Maurice Richard took Benoit’s place the following year when the latter enlisted to serve with the Canadian Army.
Born on a Tuesday of this date in 1918 in Nokomis, Saskatchewan, Lach had made his NHL debut during the NHL’s 1940-41 season, during part of which he played on a line with left winger Tony Demers and, on right, (the other, non-Detroit Red Wings) Jack Adams. The following year, ’41-42, Lach and Demers combined with rookie Richard to form the line shown posing in the photograph here. All three players having been injured during the previous year — Lach and Richard on the ice, Demers in an automobile accident — they were dubbed, naturally, the Broken Bone Line.
in the paint
Man With A Palette: Jacques Plante made his debut on this day in 1929: born in Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel , Québec, the Hall-of-Fame goaltender died in 1986 at the age of 57. For all his puck-stopping and face-saving, he was as famous a knitter and oil-painter as the NHL has ever seen. The knitting came naturally, he told an interviewer in 1954: his mother taught each of her 11 children to work the needles and the wool. “I can knit a pair of socks in a day,” Plante confided, “have knitted a tuque in three-and-a-half hours, and knitted a jumbo wool three-quarters-length coat for my wife in a week by knitting all day long.” That’s her, Jacqueline, here, with son Michel. Portrait-painting was, Plante said, something he’d picked up more recently, for something to do away from the ice. So far he’d worked up renderings of several of his teammates’ wives along with the self-portrait seen here, in which he’d outfitted himself in the uniform of the Montreal Royals, the QMHL team he starred for before graduating to the Canadiens. “I took a correspondence course from a school in Washington, D.C.,” Plante said, “and find painting a good hobby. Maybe someday I’ll be good enough to paint professionally.”