Nearly six decades after breaking racial barriers in the NHL, an athlete is finally receiving the recognition that he has long deserved. 83-year-old Willie O’Ree—the first Black player in the National Hockey League—will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, the New York Times reported.
O’Ree entered the league in 1958 and played for the Boston Bruins, the news outlet writes. During his career—which lasted for 24 seasons—he encountered the unthinkable all due to the color of his skin. There was an incident where during a brawl an opponent knocked his teeth out with a hockey stick and there was another time where unruly fans attempted to pull him into the stands and attack him.
“I heard that N-word so many times that I just let it go in one ear and out the other,” O’Ree told the news outlet. “I never fought because of racial slurs or remarks. I fought because guys speared me, butt-ended me, crosschecked me and things of that nature. Otherwise I would have spent every game in the penalty box.” Despite those obstacles, O’Ree persevered because he knew that stepping on the ice to compete was something bigger than him and he was breaking barriers for Black athletes who would follow in his footsteps.
After retiring from hockey, O’Ree spearheaded several youth programs in an effort to diversify the sport. O’Ree’s legacy has inspired the generations of Black athletes who have come behind him. “Willie O’Ree’s story must not be forgotten,” Karl Subban, a father of three Black NHL draft picks, told Sports Illustrated. “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!”
There remains a lack of diversity in the NHL. According to the New York Times, 97 percent of the league is white.