NHL Partners with Bauer to honor pioneer Willie O’Ree, raise awareness for Black History Month

Joshua Gearhart, Sports Editor

Bauer Hockey released custom Willie O’Ree skates on February 17, 2021 to honor his legacy during Black History Month. Bauer partnered with the NHL to supply these skates to the players on all 31 NHL teams.

Willie O’Ree cemented his legacy as one of the all time greatest Boston Bruins ever when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018. The NHL has also recently announced that the ceremony to retire his No. 22 jersey will now take place on Jan. 18, 2022.

Most importantly, Willie O’Ree is credited with breaking the color barrier within the NHL, and paved the way for future African American ice hockey players.

Florida Panthers forward Anthony Duclair, proudly shows off his custom Willie O’Ree skates.The skates are being worn by countless other NHL players to promote equality, and diversity within the sport of ice hockey. (NHL.com)

On Jan. 18, 1958, Willie O’Ree made history by becoming the first black man to play in a National Hockey League (NHL) game, doing so for the Boston Bruins and overcoming the struggle of racism and prejudice in the process. O’Ree’s grandparents came to Canada from the United States through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery. O’Ree started playing hockey at age three and organized hockey at age five. He instantly had a passion for the game, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Willie O’Ree actually wrote in his autobiography, “the fact that I was black never came up when we played as kids. You could have been purple with a green stripe down the middle of your forehead, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was only later, when I became older, that I learned what ‘colour barrier’ meant.”

Over the next three years, O’Ree progressed through the Fredericton hockey system. In 1951–52 he played with the Fredericton Merchants of the York County Hockey League and three games with the Fredericton Capitals of the New Brunswick Senior Hockey League. After a season with the Junior Capitals, O’Ree made a step up to the senior ranks for a full season in 1953–54.

Unfortunately, O’Ree suffered a major injury in the 1955–56 season, while he was playing for the Kitchener Canucks of the Ontario Hockey Association. O’Ree lost about 95 percent of the vision in his right eye after he was hit by a puck that broke his nose and cheekbone. Doctors advised him to never play hockey again, but he was determined to crack the NHL.

For the 1957-58 season, O’Ree’s new team, the Quebec Aces, formed a working relationship with the NHL’s Boston Bruins. The relationship meant that Aces players could be called up to the Bruins at any time.

One day O’Ree received that long awaited call up. He played a total of 45 NHL games, and amassed 4 goals and 10 assists for a career total of 14 points. He was the first Black player to ever score in the NHL.

While O’Ree’s playing days are long since over, his contribution towards the game of ice hockey has made long lasting impacts. For example, according to NHL.com the Pittsburgh Penguins have launched the Willie O’Ree Academy, a free initiative specifically designed to help develop experienced Black youth hockey players in the region by providing unique training and support opportunities.

“I was so excited and thrilled that the Willie O’Ree Academy was being developed and ultimately now being launched,” O’Ree said to NHL.com. “The academy will continue the legacy I have worked so hard to create and maintain in this space.”

In addition to the custom skates made by Bauer, the NHL already has plans to honor O’Ree this season with helmet decals to be worn by players through the end of February, Black History Month, according to ESPN.The decals feature O’Ree in his signature fedora, along with the words “Celebrating Equality.” 

Last season, there were only 43 non-white players in the NHL, which represents less than 5% of the league. The  Willie O’Ree Academy is part of a large attempt by the NHL to diversify the culture of ice hockey.