WHEN WILLIE O'REE made his debut for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958, the media largely ignored the fact that the NHL's color line had been broken. In a three-inch wire story buried in The New York Times' sports section the next day, he was mistakenly referred to as Billy. Sportswriters weren't the only ones to miss the moment's significance. "It really didn't dawn on me [then]," says O'Ree.
A swift-skating winger from Fredericton, New Brunswick, O'Ree played one more game with the Bruins in 1958. He was brought back up to Boston from the minors three seasons later, and in 43 more games he had four goals and 10 assists. He continued to play in the now-defunct Western Hockey League, finally retiring from hockey in 1979 without ever getting a call back to the NHL—that is, until two decades later.
O'Ree was working in security at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego in 1998 when the NHL approached him about becoming the director of youth development for its diversity task force. He jumped at the chance and now spends as many as three days a week on the ice, holding clinics for children from diverse ethnic backgrounds. O'Ree shares with the kids stories of the hardships he experienced, including being spit on in the penalty box. His message is simple, and it's the same one Bruins general manager Lynn Patrick and coach Milt Schmidt imparted on him 50 years ago: Your race can't keep you from succeeding. "Breaking into the NHL was great, but the work that I'm doing now has to be the most rewarding job I've ever had," says O'Ree, 72. "People say to me, 'Willie, do you think you'll ever get into the Hall of Fame?' If I get in, it won't be because I broke the color barrier. It will be because of the work I'm doing now."