The first black player to compete in the National Hockey League received Canada’s most prestigious award on Tuesday.
Willie O’Ree, 73, who was a player for the Boston Bruins, was awarded the Order of Canada, the country’s highest honor recognizing a lifetime of outstanding achievement.
“I was at a loss for words, really, when they contacted me this morning,” O’Ree said from his home in San Diego.
Canadian singer Celine Dion was among the 42 others who were awarded the Order of Canada.
O’Ree was playing minor league hockey with the Quebec Aces when the Boston Bruins called him to play for their team in 1958.
O’Ree was 95 percent blind in his right eye as a result of being hit by an errant puck two years earlier, which normally would have precluded him from playing in the National Hockey League. However, O’Ree managed to keep it secret, and made his NHL debut with the Bruins in 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens.
“It was a Saturday night, and we beat the Canadiens 3-0. Shut them out in the Forum. The big write-up was ‘Bruins Shut Out Habs,’” O’Ree said from his home in San Diego.
There was no mention of Willie O’Ree breaking the color barrier, opening doors and breaking down barriers,” he said.
The media wouldn’t pick up on that angle until O’Ree was called back up to the NHL almost two years later, he said.
He received a two-minute standing ovation when he became the first black player to score an NHL goal in 1961 during a home game for the Bruins against Montreal.
Some of O’Ree’s worst moments include the dirty play and racist taunts he faced during road games in the US.
“I just wanted to be accepted as just another hockey player ... I knew there were going to be racial remarks and slurs directed towards me. But I just let it in one ear, and out the other,” said O’Ree.
In honor of Jackie Robinson, the first black major-league baseball player, O’Ree has been referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey.”