In the very first row of the very first car on the 8 a.m. Acela train from New York to Boston, the pioneer gazes out the window, squinting against the rising sun. It’s Nov. 1, three weeks after his 83rd birthday, a week and a half before—finally!—he enters the Hockey Hall of Fame. Given his age, Willie O’Ree remains in phenomenal physical shape. His handshake still clamps like a blood pressure cuff. His chest still resembles an industrial freezer. Typically he visits the gym four times each week back home in San Diego, pedaling stationary bikes and lifting dumbbells.
Then again, he says, “I get lazy sometimes and just do three.”
He has been moving at this pace, full-tilt, for two decades now: visiting elementary schools, addressing detention facilities, running youth hockey clinics … all part of his duties as the NHL’s official diversity ambassador. Right now he is headed to Boston, where an outdoor street hockey rink will be dedicated in his honor this afternoon. As the NHL’s first black player, a fleet-footed forward whose Bruins debut broke the color barrier on Jan. 18, 1958, O’Ree would be forgiven for deeming these recent recognitions long overdue. He smiles. Not so.
“I’m at a loss for words,” he says. “Yeah, it’s still something new for me.”
Munching on a multigrain breakfast sandwich, sipping some orange juice, O’Ree unfolds an itinerary from his dress shirt pocket. Yesterday he conducted an interview with CNN at the network’s Manhattan studios. Before that came an emotional visit to Charleston, S.C., where a documentary crew filmed O’Ree as he sifted through local archives, discovering how his ancestors escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad and ultimately settled across the Canadian border. In between he found time to rehearse his Hall of Fame address, standing behind a lectern that had been fished from basement storage at NHL headquarters, ideally to simulate more of a game-like atmosphere for next Monday’s ceremony.
“Started at eight minutes, got it down to 5:12,” he reports. “Sounds pretty good.”
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A brief window into a whirlwind life. Once his (mostly minor-league) playing career ended in ‘78-79, O’Ree cycled through blue-collar gigs in construction, car sales and private security. Hanging from the wall of his current home office in San Diego, a framed picture shows O’Ree receiving the highest civilian honor bestowed by his home country, the Order of Canada, in 2008. It is flanked on both sides by two much older, less distinguished plaques, of which O’Ree is just as immensely proud: Employee of the Year at the four-star Hotel del Coronado.
One day while working there, O’Ree received an out-of-the-blue call from Bryant McBride. Then the NHL’s first-ever black vice president—and the seventh overall hire under commissioner Gary Bettman—McBride was seeking to bolster diversity and inclusivity for an overwhelmingly white sport. (As a kid from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., McBride recalls never skating alongside a single teammate of color.) And so McBride asked buddy with the FBI to track down O’Ree—or, at least, find out whether he was even alive. Upon hearing what his history-making hero was supposedly doing, McBride asked his FBI contact, “Are you sure this is the same guy?”
O’Ree reciprocated the skepticism, but eventually he leapt at the opportunity to pass along his experiences and influence to future generations of his favorite sport. “It took a little longer than expected,” he says on the train. “I always thought I’d get back in hockey.” Thus began the journey that culminates next week in Toronto, where O’Ree will be enshrined in the “Builder” category for “the historical impact of his NHL career” and “palpable results” of his staggering community involvement: According to data compiled by league officials, O’Ree has logged more than 2,400 days—or six full years—traveling to promote grassroots hockey in marginalized areas.
There are many other ways of measuring O’Ree’s legacy, of course. The inductions into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, the Black Ice Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame, and the San Diego Hall of Champions. The Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, established earlier this year by the NHL on the 60th anniversary of his Bruins debut. The 30 non-profit youth programs throughout North America that have been founded under his supervision. The 25 active black players in the NHL today, many of whom recall feeling inspired by his story from an early age.
The best example, though, can be traced to O’Ree’s hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick. It is not hard to find. Just dial up Brenda and David Sansom. Ask about the book.
One summer afternoon, an 11-year-old David Sansom was fishing alone along the Saint John River when a large local family flocked the wharf for a picnic. “They were most hospitable, invited me to stay,” Sansom says. “So I did, just because I was in the presence of Willie O’Ree.”
Then 21, O’Ree was already famous among Frederictonians for his athletic prowess. The youngest of 13 children, he had played shortstop on a semi-pro baseball team, earning a tryout with the Braves organization. He had also recorded about 25 amateur boxing fights, taking after his oldest brother Coot, who reigned as amateur light-heavy champ of the Maritimes. And most recently, he had struck 30 goals for the Kitchener Canucks of the junior-level Ontario Hockey Association, dominating opponents with unmatched, end-to-end speed.
“He was scoring,” recalls Sansom, now 73. “And he could fly.”
Two years later, Sansom began hearing buzz at the town barbershop that O’Ree was about to debut with the Bruins. Indeed, fresh off a late-arriving train to Montreal as an injury replacement, so excited that he didn’t eat dinner, O’Ree appeared twice in the spoked B over the next three days. Though he returned to the semi-pro Quebec Aces without registering a point, O’Ree must’ve realized the impact that his brief tenure had made: After all, Boston teammates teased him about the large stacks of congratulatory telegrams that flooded their dressing room.
“I’ll never forget this,” O’Ree said, according to the Jan. 20, 1958 edition of the Boston Globe. “It was the greatest thrill of my life.”
Sansom never forgot either. Whenever O’Ree returned to Fredericton, David would arrange meet-and-greets at a downtown variety store, snapping pictures and developing prints for awestruck fans. Years later, O’Ree would invite him along on his annual fishing excursion in north-central New Brunswick, where they hooked trout and bunked beside a wood stove at night, swapping stories and playing one of O’Ree’s favorite card games known as 45s. “I guess I was accepted into the family at that moment in time,” Sansom says.
All the while, Sansom worked to ensure that O’Ree’s legacy endured. “A great deal of pride and a great deal of love,” he says. “That was the underlying message. What he accomplished, he accomplished 60 years ago. The youth who come along don’t know that story.” It’s why he and Brenda, 67, successfully campaigned to have Fredericton’s rink renamed Willie O’Ree Place for the 50th anniversary of his first NHL game. And why, a decade later this January, the couple phoned O’Ree following a stirring 60th anniversary celebration in Boston.
After offering their kudos, the Sansoms casually mentioned that they had observed a “growing movement” among journalists and hockey fans alike, geared toward ensuring O’Ree’s long-awaited placement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“Well,” replied O’Ree, “that would be nice.”
On the other end, Brenda blurted out a promise:
“We’ll have to make that happen.”
Like most everyone else in the 21st century, the Sansoms began by turning to the internet. “We’re on the hook now, you know,” David had told Brenda after their call with O’Ree. Calling up the Hockey Hall of Fame website, they learned that only Selection Committee members could officially nominate individuals for induction, according to its bylaws. But there was a workaround: Provided their entry met certain criteria and reached the committee by March 15—either via hard copy or digital form—the Sansoms could state their case through a public submission.
Despite what O’Ree accomplished on NHL ice—logging 43 more games for Boston in ‘60-61 and receiving a two-minute standing ovation from the Boston Garden crowd after scoring his first goal—the Sansoms wisely decided that his best avenue toward enshrinement would come as a Builder. So they set about marshaling support. They established an email account for submissions: firstname.lastname@example.org. On Feb. 8, a letter to the editor appeared in their local paper, The Daily Gleaner:
“We close with the message that Willie leaves with all the children he mentors: If you think you can, you can.......If you think you can’t, you’re right.”
Progress was slow at first. Four or five replies, max. Then the Sansoms went on vacation to Jamaica, where Brenda read the memoirs of Karl Subban, father of three NHL draft picks in Malcolm, Jordan and, most famously, P.K. At the end of the book, Brenda found an email address for co-author Scott Colby, who eventually connected her with Karl. After a few exchanges explaining their mission, the Sansoms received a four-paragraph note on Feb. 27:
“Willie O’Ree’s story must not be forgotten,” Subban wrote. “He has made it possible for my boys to have the NHL dream and to believe they could achieve it. He changed hockey which is now for everyone. Hockey needed him and so does the Hockey Hall of Fame. The time is right!”
This was the catalyst that the Sansoms needed, an opening into the wider hockey world. For eight straight days they worked around the clock, answering phones and sending emails from their kitchen island, fueled by a great deal of pride and a great deal of love. It hardly mattered that David underwent minor surgery on March 1 that curbed his ability to conduct interviews, and Brenda required an operation on March 7 that limited her mobility.
“It’s our personal journey, I guess,” David says. “The intimate side of it.”
The final product is 77 pages long, packed with testimonials from more than 330 individuals: handwritten notes, typed letters and emails, plus 53 transcribed messages from visitors to Fredericton City Hall and 130 names on a petition.The New Brunswick Black History Society and the Ontario Black History Society voiced their support. So did Boston mayor Marty Walsh, Sportsnet analyst Doug MacLean, three former NHL players from O’Ree’s era, and city of Fredericton cultural laureate Ian LeTourneau, whose poem adorns the second page:
We rub our eyes 60 years later,
that diamond surface still brilliant,
Three times the red goal light flashed
red that night. No points for you,
no credit on the scoresheet,
but unknown to you, your name,
followed by “first,” appears indelibly
on the scoresheet of history.
Naturally, the most powerful notes were also the most personal. Former NHL forward Joel Ward recalled accompanying O’Ree to Fort Dupont, the nation’s oldest minority hockey program, while he was playing for the Capitals in 2011: “The kids didn’t always know who Willie was but once they heard his story, their pencils would drop and their eyes would light up. And they wanted to play hockey. Sometimes kids just need to see a bit of themselves in their heroes.”
On Anaheim Ducks letterhead, winger J.T. Brown detailed his experiences as a young black player in Minnesota: “While most of the time my race did not matter, there were instances where I understood my differences. In spite of the emotional conflict of this realization, I always knew that there were other players who understood what I felt. It was vital for me to learn about Mr. O’Ree at a young age because it enabled me to dream.”
It is a powerful document, a relic of O’Ree’s life and work. Three members of the Mazzuca family, who have known him since grade school, relayed memories of Jim Crow-era restaurants denying O’Ree service after games. Maureen McKee Buck remembered O’Ree visiting her village and coming over for lunch at her father’s invitation … then sticking around to sign autographs for neighborhood kids in their family driveway: “He was, and is, a builder!”
Dick Lee recounted “one of the greatest memories of my life,” when O’Ree recognized him at a San Diego bar because Lee used to ride the snow plough that O’Ree’s father once drove in Fredericton. Nancy Sinclair chronicled how she always got picked last for neighborhood softball games … until O’Ree became captain and spared her the embarrassment: “We must ensure he can remain an inspiration and a shining example to generations to come,” Sinclair wrote.”
With the aid of a younger—and much tech-savvier—employee at City Hall, the Sansoms filed the submission before the mid-March cutoff. Then they waited. One month later, the deadline for nominations by the Selection Committee passed. Finally it was June 26, the date that inductees would be notified. Several dozen Frederictonian supporters gathered at The Cabin, a local restaurant where O’Ree always orders fish and chips upon returning home. The Sansoms, meanwhile, organized a smaller party at their home, serving freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and sandwiches held together with Hockey Hall of Fame-decorated toothpicks.
Twenty minutes until the clock ran out, the Sansom household was a wreck. All the snacks were gone. Everyone was chugging coffee. Finally, the phone rang. Brenda answered, screaming: “IT’S WILLIE!!”
“I got a phone call.”
“That’s good, Willie. How did it go?”
The train rumbles north, past junkyards and cemeteries, bridges and ballfields, hugging the coastline. From his seat, O’Ree is rattling off bullet points of his biography like a one-man Wikipedia page: Left home in Fredericton at 18, turned pro with Quebec at 21, played 45 games for the Bruins, traded from the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens to the Los Angeles Blades, finished his career as a minor-leaguer on the West Coast with five 30-goal seasons …
There is something else, of course. In ‘55-56, his final year of junior hockey, a puck struck O’Ree’s right eye and shattered his retina, causing permanent blindness. Fearful that his career would suffer if anyone discovered the truth, O’Ree swore his inner circle to secrecy and never even told his parents. “People thought I recovered,” he says with a shrug. It wasn’t until 1980 that O’Ree underwent surgery; he currently wears a prosthesis, which he describes as “like a contact lens.” Until then, though, he quietly compensated on the ice. Crazy, right?
“Yeah, that’s what a lot of people have told me,” he says. “But you can do anything you set your mind to.”
This has always been his prevailing ethos. It is how O’Ree says that he handled hearing racist comments in the penalty box, and facing social discrimination on the road, and dealing with everything else that accompanied simply being a black man in the ‘60s and ‘70s, let alone someone who broke the NHL color barrier: Stay focused, ignore the idiots. “I think it was a whole lot worse,” David Sansom says, “and he endured a whole lot more than he ever reveals.”
It is the same attitude that O’Ree preaches today. Just dial up Fredericton native Scott LeBlanc. Ask about his three sons of Jamaican-Chinese descent. The oldest two have been targeted with racial slurs on the ice. The third has heard similar atrocities uttered during games. After learning about those first two incidents through the Sansoms, O’Ree reached out to offer advice and support. LeBlanc will never forget how his oldest, Taylor, reacted.
“He came out with a smile on his face,” Scott LeBlanc says. “He said, ‘Willie said it’s going to be okay.’ He went on to tell story of Willie’s brother, who very early on said to Willie, ‘Listen, you’re going to experience this kind of stuff, but you can’t let those people determine whether or not you’re going to reach your goals. You just have to ignore them.’
“What that did with our kids, being of the background that they are, looking a little bit different than the hockey teams in our community, it enabled them to handle those situations. I truly feel that the interaction with Willie, the time that he took has really shaped our boys’ lives and given them the confidence they need.”
Sadly, this work never stops. Over the past six years, O’Ree has phoned NHL players like Wayne Simmonds, Joel Ward and Devante Smith-Pelly after similarly racist incidents. “He doesn’t want credit,” says McBride. “But there’s no bull---- with Willie. Because he went through that and he wants to end it.” Every so often, O’Ree will also reach out to USA Hockey, asking if anyone has been harassed and then calls accordingly. He estimates that he speaks with one such youth player every month or two.
“I just feel sorry for the kids who have to go through that,” O’Ree says, staring out the train window. “They’re there because of the skills they have, not because of their color. If I was going to leave hockey, it wasn’t because of racial slurs. It was because I couldn’t play anymore.”
Despite his hectic travel, O’Ree remains close to the game. He owns season tickets to the AHL’s San Diego Gulls—section 3, row 7, seats 1-2, parking pass included. He bought the NHL Live package and watches as many games as he can, schedule permitting. He wears a diamond-studded Bruins alumni ring, outfitted with the spoked B on top and WILLIE on the side. Asked which current player he identifies with most, O’Ree pauses and then replies: “Brad Marchand. Aggressive, works in corners, good shot, gets into position. I like his style.”
Even the … extracurricular activities? “I wasn’t much of a pest,” O’Ree says. “I used to make things happen. If you get the puck, you can make things happen.”
Of course, he is still making things happen without the puck too. Above all else, that is why he will enter the Hall of Fame. The train arrives in Boston, where O’Ree used to take public transit from his cousin’s suburban house to the Garden for games. After a brief pit-stop at his hotel, O’Ree emerges wearing a suit, Bruins necktie and his trademark black fedora—the same one that he bought in Boston some 17 years ago, replete with a red feather and fishing lure sent by one of his Fredericton buddies. It reminds him of home.
Hopping in a car service, O’Ree is whisked to the street hockey rink in the Allston neighborhood, located a slap shot away from Harvard Stadium. He wanders around slowly, admiring his image on the dasher boards, pausing to check out a sepia-toned banner with pictures from his playing days and his favorite quote: IF YOU THINK YOU CAN, YOU CAN. IF YOU THINK YOU CAN’T, YOU’RE RIGHT.
He addresses a small crowd without notes, recalling how he would skate on the outdoor pond in Fredericton, but never a beautiful setup like this. “Hockey to me,” he tells everyone, “that’s been my life.”
It doesn’t take a speech or an induction to realize this. When the ceremony ends, O’Ree fetches a street hockey stick from the bench, twirling it to check the balance. As kids whack rubber balls around the rink, O’Ree wanders through the chaos, offering reminders to keep their heads up and their stick blades down. Reporters swarm for interviews. Three construction workers come from a nearby site, asking for pictures and autographs. But O’Ree is in the zone. A game is announced. Pinnies are distributed. His eyes light up.
“Put me in coach,” O’Ree shouts. “I’m ready to play!”