Willie O’Ree is referred to as the Jackie Robinson of hockey.
Monday marked the anniversary of the day O’Ree broke the colour barrier, becoming the first Black player to perform in the National Hockey on League Jan. 18, 1958.
He played two games for the Boston Bruins before being sent back to the Quebec Aces.
The following year in 1959, the Bruins sent their top prospect to the Kingston Frontenacs of the Eastern Professional League. He thrilled the sold-out crowds at the Memorial Centre while scoring 21 goals.
“He was a fan favourite, that’s for sure,” said Wayne Nichols, who shared the goaltending duties that season with Norm Jacques.
“He was a super guy, both on and off the ice.
“Nobody cared about the colour of his skin. He could play hockey and that’s all that mattered.”
Nichols was only 19 years old at the time but remembers O’Ree like it was yesterday.
“He could really skate. From the red line in he reminded me of Rocket Richard. That sheer determination was something to see. I also remember he always had time for the kids. After every game he made sure the fans, especially the kids, got the autograph they wanted. He was really well-liked.”
O’Ree played only one season in Kingston and finished third in team scoring behind Orval Tessier and Stan Maxwell.
His commitment to the game and the paying customer is another thing that Nichols said stood out.
“You could tell he loved the game and wanted to make sure that the people got their money’s worth,” added Nichols, now 80 years of age.
“He always wanted to give his best effort and he always did.”
O’Ree was back in the NHL with the Bruins in 1961 and scored four goals in 43 games.
He only played in 45 games in the big show but the impact he had on the sport is still felt to this day.
O’Ree is currently the NHL’s diversity ambassador, travelling across North America to promote hockey messages of inclusion, dedication and confidence.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November of 2018.