In 1958, Willie O'Ree was a lot like any other player toiling in the minors. He was good. Good enough to have been signed by the Boston Bruins. Just not quite good enough to play in the NHL.
Until January 18 of that year. O'Ree was finally called up, and when he stepped out onto the ice against the Montreal Canadiens, not only did he fulfill the childhood dream he shared with so many other Canadian kids, he did something that had never been done before.
He broke hockey's color barrier. Just as his hero, Jackie Robinson, had done for baseball.
In that pioneering first NHL game, O'Ree proved that no one could stop him from being a hockey player. But he soon learned that he could never be just a hockey player. He would always be a Black player, with all that entails. There were ugly name-calling and stick-swinging incidents and nights when the Bruins had to be escorted to their bus by the police.
But O'Ree never backed down. When he retired in 1979, he had played hundreds of games as a pro and scored hundreds of goals, his boyhood dreams more than accomplished.
In 2018, O'Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in recognition not only of that legacy, but of the way he has built on it in the decades since. He has been, for 20 years now, an NHL executive and has helped the NHL Diversity program expose more than 40,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds to unique hockey experiences.
Inspiring, frank, and shot through with the kind of understated courage and decency required to change the world, Willie is a story for anyone willing to persevere for a dream.
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