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O'Ree broke barriers despite his disability

January 14, 2008|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Even after an on-ice accident robbed him of sight in his right eye, Willie O'Ree remained unflinchingly focused on reaching the highest levels of hockey -- a determination and steeliness that helped the Canadian winger break the NHL color barrier 50 years ago this week.

On Jan. 18, 1958, two years after a deflected puck destroyed his right retina, O'Ree became the league's first black player when he entered a game for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens at Montreal.

It was a monumental moment, one that will be celebrated Saturday when the Bruins honor O'Ree at a game against the New York Rangers and again the following weekend when he is feted during All-Star weekend in Atlanta.

No less intriguing is that in 21 years in professional hockey, all but 45 games of which were played in the minors, O'Ree never took an eye test.

"Lucky for me they never asked, because I never would have passed," O'Ree says from his home in La Mesa, outside San Diego. "Luckily for me, they were more concerned about my physical condition and I kept myself in good shape."

O'Ree, 72, is still in good shape. A Californian since 1961, when he debuted for the now-defunct Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League, the father of three grown children enjoys golfing and horseback riding.

O'Ree, who played until he was 45, is still involved in hockey as the NHL's diversity programming director. It's a job that keeps him on the road about half the year, he says, and one he probably never would have landed, of course, if he had never played in the NHL. And he probably never would have played in the NHL if his blindness had not been such a well-kept secret.

He told only two people of his condition -- Betty Robinson, an older sister, and Stan Maxwell, a black teammate -- and learned to adapt on the ice.

"I just forgot about what I couldn't see and I just concentrated on what I could see," says O'Ree, who had the eye removed a few years ago to alleviate pain and discomfort. "I used to over-skate the puck quite a bit because I was just trying so hard, but then I decided, 'Don't worry about it.' But it was difficult because I was a left-handed shot playing left wing and I had to turn my head all the way around to the right to be able to pick up the puck with my left eye."

But the Bruins knew nothing of his handicap, nor apparently did they give much thought to his skin color when they promoted him in January 1958.

His race "didn't mean anything to us," former Bruins linemate Don McKenney was quoted as saying years later. "He was one of us, a Bruin."

Says O'Ree of his debut: "The big deal was that we beat the Canadiens that night. We shut them out, 3-0. That was the big write-up. There wasn't anything said about Willie O'Ree breaking the color barrier. It wasn't until I was recalled again in 1961 that the media gave me the name, the Jackie Robinson of hockey."

By then, O'Ree had realized the dream he'd developed as a youngster in Fredericton, Canada. The youngest of 13 children, he came from one of two black families in the city, which had been a stop along the Underground Railroad. And like many young Canadians, O'Ree took up hockey at an early age.

"I started skating at the age of 2, then started playing organized hockey when I was 5," he says. "That's what young boys and girls do in Canada."

Though aware that no black players had reached the NHL, he nevertheless set his sights on making it. Growing up, he says, he heard his share of racial slurs on the ice, "but not to the extent of what I heard when I came to the States."

But he let neither the slurs nor his damaged eye deter him.

Of concern for his personal safety, O'Ree says, "I never even gave it a second thought. We didn't wear any helmets or face shields or face masks back then, and I was just so geared up to play pro hockey."

He played one more game for the Bruins in 1958 -- in Boston, two nights after his debut -- and 43 in the 1960-61 season. He scored four goals.

His career was brief, but O'Ree left his mark. Says Grant Fuhr, the goaltender on the Edmonton Oilers' five Stanley Cup-winning teams and the only black inductee in the Hockey Hall of Fame, "He's the one that made it real for us."

He was happy to do it.

"At that time, it was a six-team league and there were only about 120 hockey players in the NHL," O'Ree says. "I made a contribution to the sport and to the game. I wish I could have played longer, but things happen for a reason."

His travels take him throughout North America for clinics and fundraisers and to find the next Fuhr or Jarome Iginla or Tony McKegney, the most accomplished of the small number of black players who have excelled in the NHL. Through its diversity efforts, the NHL helps to fund 39 youth programs, one in Anaheim.

"You're going to see more players of color coming into the league in the coming years," O'Ree says. "Hockey is a unique sport; if you don't have access to ice, you're not going to develop. You have to have the opportunity."

It doesn't take two eyes to see that.

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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