Willie O’Ree dropped the puck in the ceremonial faceoff before Monday’s Los Angeles Kings-Tampa Bay Lightning game at Staples Center, two days before the 59th anniversary of his becoming the first black to play in the NHL.
O’Ree also attended a screening of “Soul On Ice: Past, Present & Future,” a 2015 documentary on black hockey players and joined director Damon Kwame Mason in fielding questions from the approximately 500 invited youngsters.
O’Ree made his NHL debut on Jan. 18, 1958, in the Boston Bruins’ 3-0 victory at Montreal. O’Ree played one more game with Boston that season, then returned to Quebec Hockey League’s Quebec Aces.
O’Ree played 43 games with the Bruins in the 1960-61 season, scoring four goals and having 10 assists in 43 games. O’Ree was traded to the Montreal Canadiens in June 1961, but never played for them.
O’Ree was traded on Nov. 10, 1961 to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League, who he played with until they disbanded in 1967 when the NHL expanded to Los Angeles.
O’Ree joined the WHL’s San Diego Gulls for the 1967-68 season, their second. He remained with the Gulls for their final seven seasons, scoring a career high-equaling 38 goals in the 1968-69 season.
O’Ree returned to professional hockey after a three-season absence in 1978 at the age of 43 with the Pacific Hockey League’s San Diego Hawks, scoring 21 goals and assisting on 25 others in 53 games.
O’Ree played 19 years of professional hockey, despite being 95 percent blind in his right eye as a result of being hit in the eye by a deflected puck before he entered the NHL. O’Ree kept his vision problem secret, because if it had been known, it would have ended his playing career.
Alf Pike, who coached O’Ree with the Blades, figured O’Ree was keeping a vision problem secret and switched him to right wing, and O’Ree blossomed into a top WHL scorer.
Following his playing career, O’Ree was security director at the Coronado Hotel.
In 1998, O’Ree became the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and an ambassador for NHL Diversity. He has aided in introducing hockey to more than 40,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds, and has established nearly 40 local grassroots hockey programs throughout North America.
O’Ree’s many honors include the Order of Canada, his native country’s second greatest honor, and the Lester Patrick Award for outstanding service to hockey in the United States. He is a member of the San Diego Hall of Champions and New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame.
–City News Service