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Celebrating Black Canadian Achievements: Willie O’Ree

Christelle Agboka

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.  I rise.  I rise.  I rise.  ~Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise”

Black history month was first formally recognized in Toronto in 1978, and since 1995 has been a nation-wide commemoration of the achievements of Black Canadians. The underlying purpose of Black history celebrations, whether educational exhibits, workshops or cultural performances, is reflecting on the rights and freedoms brought about by the Civil Rights movement as well as the various societal contributions made by Blacks in Canada; in this way, Black history month provides a platform that traditional curriculum often does not .

Willie O'Ree - skates

Canadian Willie O'Ree was the first black hockey player to play in the NHL.

Black History month reminds us how far Black Canadians have come from the days of slavery, with representation across fields (e.g., politics, arts, sports, medicine) and empowers young people of all ethnicities to rise above any challenges to accomplish their most cherished dreams. As this special month comes to a close, consider the stories of pioneering Black Canadians as an inspiration.

One example of someone who forever changed perceptions of Black Canadians in his field was Willie O’ Ree. Born on October 15, 1935, to one of only two black families in Fredericton, NB, young William “Willie” O’ Ree, showed an affinity for several sports but soon fell in love with the Canadian pastime of hockey. At the tender age of three he began skating, and by five was playing in a hockey league.  In a game during his final year of junior hockey, he was hit in the face with a puck, losing nearly 95% of the vision in his right eye. Nonetheless, his determination to continue playing was so strong that although the doctor told him his hockey days were over, he immediately went back onto the ice upon his release from the hospital.

Keeping his disability to himself, O’ Ree went on to help the Fredericton Capital win an Allen Cup in 1954, and won the Memorial Cup with the Quebec Frontenacs the following year. The next season, with the Ontario Hockey Association’s Junior A Kitchener Canucks, he scored 30 goals, a career high.

During a season with the Quebec Aces, he caught the eye of the Boston Bruins, who asked him to play an NHL game. His first game with the Boston Bruins took place on January 18, 1958 at the Montreal Forum. His appearance was not met with any fanfare, yet it was a groundbreaking day – he had become the first Black hockey player ever to participate in an NHL game; better yet, his team beat the Canadiens 3-0 that day. O’ Ree played only two more games for the Bruins that season, returned to the minors, then was called back to the Bruins in 1961, where he played another 43 games.

Throughout his hockey career in the US and Canada, he struggled with racism, with fans throwing things at him in the penalty box and spitting at him. With jeers from opposing players he pressed on. In the process, he paved the way for the next generation of Black hockey players.  The second Black hockey player to join the NHL was Mike Marson, 25 years after O’ Ree’s NHL debut.  Upon his retirement, O’Ree took on the role of Director of Youth Development in the NHL’s diversity program, called “Hockey is for Everyone,” which he still holds.  Among his many honours, O’ Ree received the prestigious Order of New Brunswick in 2005 as well the Order of Canada in 2010 (also awarded to NHL greats Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe). As he once said and proved throughout his career, “You can do anything you set your mind to do; if you feel strongly within your heart, within your mind, you can do it.”

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Which inspirational Canadian are you celebrating during Black History Month? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

For more on black history, also see:

Our Kids eBook: Diverse Classrooms

The Importance of Black History Month

Ontario Black History Society

City of Toronto Black History Month Exhibit

Government of Canada: Black History Month

 

 

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About Christelle Agboka

Christelle Agboka is a freelance writer based in Toronto and presently indulging her love of words as a book and magazine publishing student at Centennial College.

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