50th anniversary for trailblazing O’Ree

When he played for the Boston Bruins against the Canadiens in Montreal on Jan. 18,
1958, Willie O’Ree became the first black person to play in the National Hockey League. O’Ree played on a line with Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini and helped the Bruins defeat the mighty Canadiens, 3-0.

Fifty years later, O’Ree is still involved in hockey as the Director of Youth Development for the NHL’s Diversity program. In the past 10 years, he has helped introduce more than 40,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds to hockey while stressing the importance of essential life skills, education and the core values of hockey: commitment, perseverance and teamwork.

The National Hockey League has prepared a terrific look at the trailblazing O’Ree and his significant contribution to the game. Their entire package appears below.

A study of the legend of Willie O’Ree:



  1. Peter Young says:

    Absolutely right about the Bruins’ strength at that time, although the rivalry had not yet reached the intensity it had 20 years later in the late Seventies.

    The season before, 1956-57, the Bruins had come close to putting the Canadiens in third place in the six-team league, and they were the reason the Canadiens did not repeat as league champions (Prince of Wales Trophy winners). And in both 1957 and 1958 the Bruins reached the Stanley Cup finals.

    They had some fine players in the Fifties–Fleming Mackell, Real Chevrefil and Leo Labine were the ones who most stick in my mind for their talent, desire and commitment, Don McKenney for his skill. Plus they had players like Fernie Flaman, Leo Boivin, Allan Stanley and Doug Mohns on defense. And then in the late Fifties three players emerged into stardom as the high-scoring Uke line, Vic Stasiuk and Johnny Bucyk from the Red Wings and Bronco Horvath from the Rangers. Horvath actually played one game for the Canadiens in 1956-57, between stints in New York.

    The Bruins had no real superstars. What they did have, though, was great depth in very good players. In the season of Willie O’Ree’s debut, 1957-58, they had three centres who scored at least 20 goals, Horvath with 30, McKenney with 28 and Mackell with 20.

  2. Axxelein says:

    The Bruins were also hurting that night. Defensive stalwart Bob Armstrong, firebrand Leo Labine & offensive power Real Chevrefils were missing from action..Buddy Boone had also been called up..Coach Schmidt had moved Fleming Mackell from his regular line…Enter Willie O’Ree.. Veteran netminder Harry Lumley had just replaced the injured Don Simmons & was posting a stellar shutout…The Bruins of the late 1950s were a powerhouse & the intense rivalry with Les Canadiens was a constant, ongoing affair of epic proportions…Witness that night’s score..”Plus ca change”…Cheers!!

  3. CH1909-2009 says:

    Fantastic stuff!


  4. RH says:

    Haven’t had time to read the articles yet but will. And to think the Bruins had a black athlete on there team before the Red Sox.

  5. habsfan reduxit says:

    … I had the pleasure and opportunity to speak with Willie after morning worship yesterday. (He is home for the Fredericton festivities in his honour, and he attended church yesterday, where he was a member of the parish I now attend.)

    … we recounted the day about fifty years ago – I was about ten, and he twenty – that he arrived at my Little League diamond in Marysville. He was home that summer from the Quebec Aces, and as he continues to do today, Willie always made a point of visiting us kids, to show interest in our games, but more so, to support, encourage and inspire us towards our goal: to be the best in life we could be.

    … we are all the better for having known Willie O’Ree and for having had his example to follow.

  6. habsfan reduxit says:

    … an interesting fact about that game, is there was no one named ‘Richard’ playing for the Habs that night, but someone named ‘Gene Achtymichuk’ WAS listed. Maybe the absence of the Rocket could help explain the result: a 3 – 0 loss.

  7. Dave Stubbs says:

    But there were six future Hall of Famers in the Canadiens lineup that night. Not a bad team, all in all; maybe the Bruins simply wanted it more that game? The more things change…

    Dave Stubbs

    Habs Inside/Out
    Sports Feature Writer, Montreal Gazette


  8. Habs64 says:

    Great article, I had some older friends who played against Willie in New Brunswick, tough as nails they said!!

    The Red Sox didn’t fully integrate until 1967 and had a chance to acquire Willie Mays as a prospect but Yawkey the Red Sox owner was a racist and refused.

  9. Infanteer says:

    Fascinating. Here in Fredericton there’s a well-deserved celebration of O’Ree’s accomplishments.

    One question, though . . . I thought the game was a 3-0 loss to the Montreal Canadians. And yet, on the “Official Report of the Match” included above, the score is pretty clearly inscribed as 5 – 0!

    The digit “5” though seems a little more pronounced than the other numbers, maybe it’s a bad facsimilie. Or – gasp! -could it be the Habs lost by 5, and not 3?

  10. Sulemaan says:


    Great article. Thank you for this.

    I’m glad that the NHL is starting to take steps to make the league open to others such as the work Wily O’Ree is doing. God Bless him.

    At the end of the day, your talent, desire and work ethic as a player should be the only factor to consider. Nothing else. Be it race, religion, ethnicity, etc. I only hope that a player like P.K. Subban dresses for the Canadiens because as far as I can tell, we’ve never had a black player on our team before. But more importantly, because he seems to be a hell of hockey player who will make our team better.

    On the flip side, when you see players like Simon make racial slurs versus Mike Grier (to Simon’s credit he apologized) or when Ted Nolan (a native indian) was effectively black-balled from the NHL for many years, you realize the NHL still has a long way to go. I think when we regularly see minorities in management, scouting and coaching positions in the NHL, we will have finally arrived.

    I’m not saying this to be politically correct but that diversity can only bring out the best and improve the NHL even more. I only look at the positive influence Europeans brought to the NHL as an example. Not even 25 years ago, Russians were considered the enemy. Today, arguably the best player on the Montreal Canadiens is one.

  11. RH says:

    Actually, we had Donald Brashear on our team for two or three seasons, way back when.

    I can’t believe they don’t have my man, Manny Malhotra, on that list. Oversight, I guess.

    Great article. Up until about seven or eight years ago, I never knew about Mr. O’Ree, and frankly, it never even crossed my mind that there were black athletes trying to get into the NHL, so long ago. I figured that it was only in the eighties that the NHL saw its first black professional hockey player. I’m glad that Mr. O’Ree managed to keep his focus and concentrate on his dreams and ambitions, and not let racism and condescending remarks cloud his mind. Too often, nowadays, people are quick to play the race card, not caring about the consequences of there actions.

    Finally, I love that letter sent to Mr. O’Ree, by the Bruins head office. The part I love is where they tell him that “Many of the players will be coming by automobile…” That’s priceless! What was an NHL players salary back then? What was the price of a car? Did those who could afford it, buy sports cars? Beefed up ‘boats’, that you could fit a family of ten in? What?

  12. Sulemaan says:

    You’re absolutely right RH about Brashear. I totally forgot about him. Thanks for the reminder.

  13. Peter Young says:

    I well remember O’Ree’s first NHL appearance. It gained a lot of notice at the time. It did my heart good to see one more “racial barrier” broken, although I must confess my joy was dampened a bit by the Canadiens loss.

    I’d like to think that a little thing like race never would have prevented Frank Selke from taking on a player he thought could help the Canadiens, although racism was rampant and not at all subtle at the time. There were only six NHL teams then, only about 100 player slots available and not that many players of colour. At least their number was miniscule compared to the number of white players. But I’ve read that Herb Carnegie’s exclusion a bit earlier from the NHL was racially motivated, that he had all the talent in the world, and he played a lot in Quebec.

    O’Ree has received quite a bit of attention in Southern California. The Los Angeles Times gave him a big write-up a few years ago, when he was living, I believe, in San Diego.

    Maurice Richard was absent from the lineup that night because he missed a good part of the season after Marc Reaume’s skate sliced his Achilles tendon in Maple Leaf Gardens. That set the stage for the greatest comeback performance in NHL history, when the Rocket single handedly took over the playoffs. If there was one thing that demonstrated how truly great the Rocket was, it is what he did that spring as the NHL’s oldest player, supposedly washed up. It was his last great hurrah. Dave Stubbs no doubt will be posting about that when the 50th anniversary rolls around in a couple of months, so I’ll save further comment for then.

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