It’s another sunny day in La Mesa, California. And another sunny day for hockey pioneer, Willie O’Ree. Just don’t call him that.
“The temperature is probably going to reach around 90, 92 degrees,” he says, looking out his office window. O’Ree is getting ready for a trip to Washington DC: just another in a long journey for the spry 75 year old. But it’s all for a good cause.
“Once you get the boys and girls on the ice, that’s 90 percent of the job,” he says. “What I tell them is ‘if you don’t like it, you can walk away.’ I have not had one boy or girl come up to me and say they’re not coming back. There’s just something about it.”
O’Ree and Kevin Weekes of NHL Network and Hockey Night in Canada fame, will join Washington’s own Neal Henderson of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, in attending the Congressional Black Caucus’ 41st annual meeting. This will mark the first time ever that the hockey community has had a formal presence at this annual affair.
Joining them will be Ken Martin, VP of the Community Affairs for the NHL, who we met two weeks ago at the Warriors game. The CBC meeting is yet another facet to the League’s Hockey is for Everyone program. “We are proud to present these hockey legends and look forward to participating and exploring additional opportunities for more boys and girls of all backgrounds to play our great sport,” he said.
Willie O’Ree sees the future of hockey (which is ironic, which we’ll get to in a moment.) And for him, the future looks like the kids in Fredericton, and Detroit, and El Paso…and just about everywhere else he’s traveled. Hockey’s future, he says, looks a whole lot like 1958. But much, much more so. At least, so says the man who many call a ‘hero‘.
“A lot of people call me a hero, call me a pioneer,” says the New Brunswick native. “But the way I look at it, I was just a kid from Canada, wanting to play a sport where there were very few blacks playing at that time, and just be the best player I could be.”
At first, O’Ree has that ‘professionally modest’ tone that nearly every high-dollar player has adopted these days – usually on advice of agents. Yet it doesn’t take long to figure out that nobody coaches Willie O’Ree. He actually is what he’s said to be. And it’s disarming.
‘I’m speaking with Willie O’Ree? Seriously?’, you ask yourself. ‘THE man who broke the color barrier in the NHL? The ‘Jackie Robinson’ of the Rink?’
“So many people have asked me about that before,” says O’Ree, graciously…without exaggeration. Ever since Jan. 18, 1958, when he was called up by the Bruins as a right winger – and became the first-ever black man to lace up for an NHL game – O’Ree has became a part of sports history.
Fine and well..but notice the words. “Black man”, “NHL.” Among his other claims, O’Ree is very often mis-cited as being the “first African-American” to play professional hockey. Wrong, and wrong. O’Ree is to this day a proud Canadian national – just like most of the 29 current NHL players who cite African heritage. “African-Canadian?” Mmmm…let’s go with the Canadian press and say ‘black.’
As for others before him, they were ably documented in Darril and George Fosty’s book “Black Ice” – a blazing document of the early Colored Hockey League of the early last century, and the innovations that gave us modern hockey.
Still, there’s no doubting: Willie O’Ree was the first. And to this day, he’s humble about his place in the pantheon.
“You just have to set goals for yourself, and work toward your goals. If you think you can, you can; if you think you can’t, you’re right. With our program, if you want to play, what we say is we won’t turn any boy or girl away.”
Kind words from a man who’s learned to be so.
Of the major professional sports leagues in North America, hockey – at least as measured by players – still remains the whitest. Currently just 29 NHL players can cite Africa as part of their heritage. O’Ree retired from the NHL in 1961, yet it took an unbelievable 16 more years before any other player could boast a similar claim. That player? Yeah, a Capital – Mike Marson, drafted by the upstart team in 1974.
“I think we had just under 30 players in the National Hockey League that were visible minorities this year. As you know, that’s certainly a high number, and it’s only going to get higher, thanks in part to people like Willie O’Ree.”
That’s not just an idle comment, but one from someone who knows the game from several angles: Kevin Weekes. Memorable between the pipes for a number of teams in the 90s – the Panthers, Canucks, Islanders Bolts, Canes, Rangers (boo!), and ultimately the Devils – Weekes these days is perhaps just as recognizable as the first black man to host national TV coverage of the NHL, on the CBC and NHLN – not to mention his official role as “Ambassador of Hockey.” It’s a title that suits him.
“It’s all about evolution,” notes Weekes from his Toronto office. “And like everything else, it evolves at it’s own pace.”
Evolution lesson #1: Kevin Weekes is a first-generation ‘American’ – using the term loosely. Born of parents from Barbados, Weekes learned the game as an immigrant to the colder climes of Canada – exactly as O’Ree, did. But for Weekes, it was all new, and strange…and enticing:
“Many of us were first generation North Americans. You don’t play hockey in Trinidad or Barbados.” But exactly for that reason the question rises: can hockey grow? Really grow, to warm-side towns and country-sides where pickup soccer and baseball have reigned?
“If the White House isn’t a great indicator of time and evolution, I don’t know what would be,” says Weekes, who fondly recalls a chat with First Lady Michele Obama.
“Hockey isn’t like playing high school football or basketball. Hockey is unique – you’ve got tournaments, you’re playing all over the place, and it definitely requires a lot of commitment from the family unit.”
For Weekes – and it seems for so many others – hockey is about unity. Unity of family, of muscle and drive, and of community. “Why should you be limited to certain career choices?,” asks the first-generation Canadian. “Why should your background, or your parents background determine who you should become? I think that’s kind of belittling.”
To be clear: there’s a great display of talent in the NHL of players of African lineage. Among the hottest: Jarome Iginla, Kyle Okposo, Shawn Belle, giant Paul “BizNasty” Bissonnette, Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien and our new Cap winger, Joel Ward. And as Weekes notes – that’s just the surface.
“The more comfortable people are with something, the more often they see it, the more they’re going to be comfortable with it. My parents had only been in Canada for 5 years. I said I wanted to be like Ian, my older cousin, and said ‘I want to play hockey.’ My parents had no idea what the process was…they had no clue, but they committed to it.”
It’s a tough role to be a role model, let alone a ‘hero’. Just ‘google’ Kevin Weekes – let alone Willie O’Ree – and see what comes up. “It gives me goosebumps, just thinking about it,” says Weekes. He, O’Ree, and dozens of other players have had to lumber under that mantle for years now. Too many years. Which is why both Weekes and O’Ree look sunnily to their trip to DC. In part, to do their bit for the NHL. And in part, to come pay tribute to someone who’s actually been doing what they talk about for years – without all the media attention.
“Neil Henderson? He’s my hero!,” says O’Ree, of the man behind the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club. Weekes chimes in: the Cannons embody what he sees as the future of hockey: diverse, young, and enthusiastic. “He sees the future,” he adds
Which brings us back to Will O’Ree, and vision. Unknown at the time he was drafted, O’Ree only had vision in one eye – his right retina nearly destroyed by an errant puck. A left-winger, with no right eye vision? Perhaps as unlikely as a black player in 1958.
“I like to say that Willie O’Ree lost his vision, but was always a visionary,” says Weekes. It’s a line O’Ree has heard before, and embraces.
“I just told myself: ‘Willie, you can do anything you set your mind to do, if you feel strongly within your heart.’ And this is what I tell this young boys and girls. I have visions of boys and girls not just playing hockey, but getting into management positions. There’s a lot of opportunity.”
Our time done, Willie O’Ree has other matters to attend to ahead of his trip to DC. It’s not easy being a hero. Perhaps that’s why he so looks forward to the day when a player of African, or Caribbean, or another minority is noted for their play – not for their ancestry. For O’Ree, hockey’s future is a bright, sunny place.
“Enjoy the day,” he says.