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Boston: The story of a hockey pioneer

Hockey

The GIST: While the struggling Celtics lost a tough battle with the Atlanta Hawks last night and the Bruins return to the ice against the New Jersey Devils tonight, today we’re highlighting a player from the past: the NHL’s first Black player, Bruins winger Willie O’Ree.

February 18, 2021
Source: AP Photo
Source: AP Photo

🏒The story: A native of New Brunswick, Canada, O’Ree was playing his second season with the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Hockey League when the Bruins called him up to replace an injured player. O’Ree made his NHL debut on January 18th, 1958, 11 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.

  • After his historic debut, O’Ree bounced between minor hockey leagues for the next couple of years before being called up by the Bruins again during the 1960-61 season. O’Ree notched another milestone on January 1st, 1961, beating two defenders to net the first NHL goal scored by a Black player. 

💪O’Ree’s legacy: After retiring, O’Ree joined the league as the Director of Youth Development and an ambassador for NHL Diversity. Though his NHL debut was not met with much fanfare, his enduring impact is well-known and celebrated today, especially in a sport that continues to struggle with diversity.

  • The B’s originally planned to retire O’Ree’s number 22 in a ceremony at tonight’s game but will hold off until January 18th, 2022, when fans can pack the Garden to properly honor the hockey pioneer. Mark your calendar.
  • In the meantime, several NHL players will wear custom skates honoring O’Ree, which will then be auctioned to support Black Girl Hockey Club. A perfect tribute.