The Always Underrated Willie O’Ree

Willie O’Ree was not a dominant player. His entire NHL career spanned only 45 games during which he registered a serviceable if uninspiring 14 points. He is the most underrated player in NHL history.

Shortly after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, he was followed into the big leagues by Larry Doby, Hank Thompson and others. In 1948, Doby and Satchel Paige became the first Black players to win a World Series. It was not easy for these men to do what they did and that many players followed in their footsteps does not lessen the challenges that Robinson and his peers faced. Their courage changed the face of the game. Today, people of color account for more than 40% of MLB rosters, with Black players specifically filling roughly one in ten major league roster spots.

In 1958 Willie O’Ree became the first Black player in NHL history, breaking a color barrier that would reform after his brief career ended. It was a decade and a half until 1974 when Mike Marson and Bill Riley became the second and third Black NHL players in 1974, a wait that only seems shocking if you ignore how deeply whiteness is embedded in hockey culture. In the 2020 season, there were only 43 players of color in the entire NHL; by my count, fewer than 30 are Black.

This piece by Akim Aliu explains in shocking detail how hard being a Black player in the NHL still is, six decades after O’Ree’s first game.

Hockey is imminently proud of its work in breaking players out from behind the Iron Curtain. As a Detroit Red Wings fan, I’ve read the story of Sergei Fedorov’s escape in a dozen publications and I’ve learned the exploits of Soviet stars like Viacheslav Fetisov and Igor Larionov whose pre-NHL careers dwarfed their already impressive NHL achievements. Even as Don Cherry and his ilk have expressed bigoted views of European players, these men have been rightly celebrated for their bravery and placed among the all-time greats of their sport. (Of course, it’s a sham that Alexander Mogilny isn’t in the Hall of Fame, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Willie O’Ree has, mostly, been afforded no such praise.

I read a lot of hockey history as a kid. I knew that Eddie Shore was the meanest and greatest player in early NHL history and that Boom Boom Geoffrion got his nickname from the sound of the puck hitting his stick and then the boards when he took a slap shot. I knew my stuff. For most of my life, I assumed that Willie O’Ree was a Hall of Famer. How could he not be? Even a dumb, suburban white kid like me knew that what he had achieved exemplified a greatness that went far beyond games played and goals scored. When he was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, I was shocked that this same event hadn’t already taken place. How could hockey have taken O’Ree’s bravery for granted for so long? How could the Hall be so close-minded?

In truth, O’Ree is deserving of more honors than just enshrinement in the Hall.

The only answer I can conceive is that, because O’Ree’s playing statistics didn’t measure up to the likes of Robinson and because his breaking of the color barrier did not introduce a flood of Black players to NHL rosters, the league found his story to be useful—marketable and quaint, really—but not worthy of greater honor. What a stupid, ugly position to take.

O’Ree is a hero. One of mine, certainly. The Boston Bruins will retire his number on February 18th, decades too late. O’Ree, as ever, was unbelievably gracious upon learning the news. “I was at a loss for words,” he said. “I’m overwhelmed and thrilled.” For years, O’Ree has been an ambassador for the game he loves, spreading its gospel and sharing the game’s power and beauty with communities that might otherwise have been ignorant of it. He has given much, much more to hockey than it has given to him. Like so many other underrated players, O’Ree has never let a lack of recognition slow him down. He keeps grinding on, grateful for all he receives, always putting the game first. Hockey may not deserve Willie O’Ree, but it’s lucky to have him.

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