Willie O’Ree has finally been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s known as the first black player in NHL history. Closer to home, he was an all-star for two early SoCal teams.
Willie O’Ree will go down in the history books as the first black hockey player in NHL history. Hockey’s version of Jackie Robinson if you will (O’Ree met the Dodgers Hall-of-Famer when he was 14). His induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame on that basis alone should have happened years ago.
I could write a book about O’Ree breaking the NHL’s color barrier. It would be one of many. The racism he faced back then (and still today) never defined him. He was happy to be a professional hockey player and did his best to avoid those who wanted to put a premature end to his career.
I could write about how the sport he loved cost him the sight in one eye. Two years before the Boston Bruins called him up, O’Ree was hit in the face with a puck. As a result of the injury, he lost 95 percent of his vision on the right side. Boston never knew about the eye when they signed him.
I could write about his work as a sort of ambassador for the NHL. He’s been with the NHL since 1996 promoting diversity and the “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative. The league now gives the annual Willie O’Ree Community Hero award to those who “champion local efforts through hockey.”
What I will write about is Willie O’Ree’s impact on Southern California hockey.