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It’s common knowledge that Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson are synonymous with sports integration. Now the NHL’s First Black player, Willie O’Ree is finally being acknowledged for his legendary contribution.
O’Ree, 86, once broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958 with the Boston Bruins. He played 45 games over four seasons, despite being legally blind in one eye.
The road to Sports prominence was once painstakingly paved by the quietly radical and resistant. Using a hockey stick, O’Ree smoothed the turbulent road for many Black hockey enthusiasts to follow.
Because of them, we can.
Earlier this week the Canadian born O’Ree was gifted the highest honor by the Bruins who retired his #22 jersey. If that wasn’t enough, on Wednesday The Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act passed 426-0, recognizing his breaking of hockey’s racial barrier.
Today, Black NHL players are not only rostered, but spotlighted. Sports have progressed since the 1960s, however – like society – there is much left to do. While symbols and acknowledgements are nice, it doesn’t erase what life was like for a Black athlete during those times.
Athletes are smarter than they think
Once older, out of the spotlight and yielding less influence, mainstream society routinely embraces them with open arms.
However, the annals of history and present day reveal a deeper truth about the society in which they played than the player themselves.
Willie O’Ree ‘hockey’d while Black’
Much like Russell or Robinson, O’Ree too suffered years of discrimination for simply doing his job. “Besides being Black and being blind in my right eye,” he said. “I was faced with four other things: racism, prejudice, bigotry and ignorance.”
Though O’Ree had a much shorter athletic career than most pioneers, his lasting impact reverberated with time. So much so that now Willie O’Ree directs the NHL’s youth development and serves as diversity ambassador.
If we continue our tradition of honoring mold-shattering Black athletes well after their playing career – whilst castigating them during it – I suppose we can look forward to the 49ers retiring #7 in 2052.