Every kid has dreams.
Myself, I dreamed of being a professional hockey player. And I did everything I could to make it happen.
From the moment I began skating at the age of three, double blades strapped to the bottom of my shoes on the backyard rink my father made for me and my siblings at our home in Fredericton, I loved it. Within two years, by the age of five, I started playing organized hockey and was simply obsessed with the game. I worked tirelessly to eventually reach the sport’s highest level: the National Hockey League® (NHL®).
But there are certain accomplishments in life that you could never even dream of – that are beyond the realm of imagination. Getting a stamp in your honour is certainly one of them.
I’m incredibly touched by the recognition I have received, and grateful to have made a difference in the lives of so many people.
In 1958, when I became the first Black player to play in an NHL game, it was the culmination of years of hard work. What felt like an individual accomplishment at the time has since become a moment of inspiration that sparked dreams for countless young folks in the years that followed. That was never my plan.
I played many sports growing up, and was pretty good at all of them. The two I loved most were baseball and hockey, and, at age 14 when it came time to choose one for good, I chose hockey. When I told my eldest brother, Richard, he taught me a valuable lesson. “Regardless of what happens,” he told me, “you’re going to be faced with racism and prejudice.” He added that, if I wanted to make it, I needed to be better than most of the white players I competed against. That fuelled me to work even harder and stay laser-focused on my goals. I give a lot of credit to Richard for helping to instill in me the confidence to pursue a predominantly white sport like hockey. “I know you’ll get it done, Willie,” he said.
I was aware that there were not many Black players in the professional ranks. There was the all-Black line, featuring Herb and Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre, who played together on various teams. Outside of that, minority representation in the sport was few and far between. I also recognized the significance of breaking barriers and recall hearing about Jackie Robinson becoming the first Black player in Major League Baseball in the modern era, a monumental achievement.
When I was 14 years old, I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Robinson, who by then was a true hero of mine. It’s a moment forever etched in my memory. My baseball team back in Fredericton had won a championship and as a prize we were taken to New York City. I remember gazing up at the Empire State Building in awe, seeing Radio City Music Hall and visiting the amusement rides on Coney Island. But the highlight of the trip was watching a Yankees game at old Ebbets Field. After the game, we were allowed onto the field. To my astonishment, there was Jackie Robinson, waiting to greet us. I shook his hand and told him that, not only do I play baseball, but I play ice hockey, too. “Oh,” he said, “I didn’t know there were any Black kids who played hockey.” “Yup,” I told him, “there are a few of us.”
Nearly ten years later, I got my big opportunity. It was January 1958 and I had been playing for the Quebec Aces in the Quebec Senior Hockey League when I got a call from the Boston Bruins®: “Willie, we want you to meet the Bruins in Montréal to play two games against the [Montreal] Canadiens®.” Injuries had left the team undermanned and they thought I could bring something to the table. I was thrilled. When I got to Montréal, Bruins coach Milt Schmidt sat me down and said, “Just go out and play your game. Don’t worry about anything else.”
Don’t worry? That went in one ear and out the other. How could I just go out and play my game as if it were any other game? Not only was this the culmination of a lifetime dream to make the NHL, but these were the very same Canadiens who dominated the league at the time, winning Stanley Cup® after Stanley Cup and featured players like Jean Béliveau and Maurice Richard, who I grew up in awe of. Don’t worry!?
I’ll never forget the day. It was January 18th, a Saturday. My parents and my brother, Richard, made the drive from Fredericton to Montréal to watch the game. During warm-ups, I stepped onto the ice with butterflies in my stomach. And then the game began, and everything felt natural. On paper, it wasn’t anything special; I didn’t score a goal, I had zero assists. We won the game, 3-0. I saw my family after the game before the team boarded a train back to Boston. I was so consumed in the moment – reaching the big league, playing against my idols in front of my family – that it didn’t dawn on me at the time that I had made history.
It wasn’t until the following day, when I opened up the newspaper and read that I had become the first Black player to play in the NHL, that the weight of the moment hit me. “Oh my,” I thought, “this is something else.”
Beyond a small story in the papers, my NHL debut was hardly feted. The next day, I was back in Québec, playing with the Aces.
I only played 45 games in the NHL before landing in the Western Hockey League, where I played for the Los Angeles Blades. In 1962, four years after my historic debut, I was invited to a luncheon in Los Angeles hosted by the NAACP to honour Jackie Robinson. I arrived to the event and saw Mr. Robinson in conversation with a group of people. When he finished, my coach approached him. “Mr. Robinson,” he said, “I’d like to introduce you to a local player, Willie O’Ree.”
“Willie O’Ree!” Mr. Robinson exclaimed. “I’ve met you before, in New York.” I couldn’t believe my ears. It had been 13 years since our brief encounter on the baseball diamond at Ebbets Field. “I see you’ve found your sport,” he said. I was speechless. I had to pick my jaw up from the floor.
I had a similar reaction when I found out that Canada Post was going to create a stamp in my honour. It is a powerful reminder of the impact I’ve been able to have on others. To think that I have been a source of inspiration in somebody’s life just like Jackie Robinson was for me is stunning.
In the 1990s, I made my way back to the NHL as an ambassador for their diversity program. Ever since, I’ve been travelling to schools, boys and girls clubs, and many other places across North America, sharing my story. I teach kids of all ages the value of hard work, and encourage them if they are determined and willing to put the work in, their dreams can come true, too. “You only get out of life what you put in it,” I teach them. I tell them about my eye injury, which left me blind in one eye before I reached the NHL, and how I didn’t let that slow me down. “Don’t concentrate on what you can’t see,” I told myself then. “Concentrate on what you can see.”
I know first-hand that there is tremendous power in visibility, and I take great pride in making myself available to younger generations.
The work I do with young people is one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had. I receive countless letters – not just from athletes – thanking me for inspiring them to overcome obstacles and believe in themselves. When I teach clinics, kids will come up to me and say, “Mr. O’Ree, I can’t imagine what you had to go through. Thank you for teaching me that hockey is for everyone and that if you want to achieve all you have to do is work hard and put yourself in a position to succeed.” It’s the most rewarding part of my life.
I am so thankful that my legacy will carry on with this new stamp. When I got the call from Canada Post, I was at a loss for words. Five days a week, I meet with a group of friends in the mornings. We drink coffee and catch each other up on our lives. When I told them about the stamp they couldn’t believe it either. “You have the Order of Canada, a coin from the [Royal Canadian] Mint, and now your very own stamp!?” they said.
I enjoyed being involved in the process of creating the stamp. My wife, my daughter and I looked over different photos and design options before helping to select the right one. The whole process was a thrill for us all.
It’s hard to believe I have my own stamp. I couldn’t imagine when I first started playing that any of these things were possible. I just wanted to be the best hockey player I could be.
Look at where that took me.
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Stamp honours NHL’s first Black player, Willie O’ReeAvailable now