Born Willie Eldon O’Ree, CM, ONB (October 15, 1935, in Fredericton, New Brunswick) is a former professional ice hockey player, perhaps best known for being the first black player in the National Hockey League. O’Ree played for the Boston Bruins. He is often referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey” due to breaking the black colour barrier in the sport, and has stated publicly that he had met Jackie Robinson twice in his younger years. Although a great deal has been made of being the first black in the NHL, in reality he is best known for “… [his] friendship and compassion. Proud and not afraid to show it, his self-confidence only serves to reveal his humility.”
Midway through his second minor-league season with the Quebec Aces, O’Ree was called up to the Boston Bruins of the NHL to replace an injured player. O’Ree was 95% blind in his right eye due to being hit there by an errant puck two years earlier, which normally would have precluded him from playing in the NHL. However, O’Ree managed to keep it a secret, and made his NHL debut with the Bruins on January 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first black player in league history, appearing in two games that year, and returned in 1961 to play 43 games, playing with Boston centreman Don McKenney and right wing Jerry Toppazzini. He scored 4 goals and 10 assists in 1961.
His professional career, which spanned 23 years, took him from Fredericton to Quebec, Kingston, Ottawa, Los Angeles, San Diego, and New Haven retiring in 1979. He has worked for the NHL, both as an ambassador and in the development of youth, and is still working for the NHL in his 80th year.
O’Ree played over 800 games in the Western Hockey League (WHL) between 1961 and 1974, scoring thirty or more goals five times, with a high of 38 in both 1964–65 and 1968–69. His best year was 1968-69 when he tallied 79 points (38-41) in 70 games. Most of O’Ree’s playing time was with the WHL’s Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls. The latter team retired his number, now hanging from the rafters at the San Diego Sports Arena. O’Ree continued to play in the minor pro leagues until the age of 43. However, his contribution to hockey went well beyond his playing days, working in hockey promotion, youth development and cross-cultural understanding.
In 1984, he was inducted into the New Brunswick Sport Hall of Fame; in 2008 into the San Diego Hall of Champions, and was honoured by the San Diego State University for his work in “diversity and cross-cultural understanding.” That same year the City of Fredericton named the new sports complex after Willie O’Ree. In 2011, he was named to the Hockey Legacy Board by the Boston Sports Museum.
In 2005, he was inducted into the Order of New Brunswick (ONB); and five years later into the Order of Canada (CM).