My African-American friends understanding that I celebrate National Hockey League Integration Day, Jan. 18, rather than Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Willie O’Ree, who was the first black National Hockey League player, later played minor league hockey in San Diego and still lives in San Diego County, so the integration of the National Hockey League has more personal meaning for me than Martin Luther King Jr.
This year, more people will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination than the 60th anniversary of the integration of the National Hockey League. King was an honorable and well-respected man, but even he would likely agree that integration by acceptance is just as worthy if not more worthy of celebration than integration by legislation.
Willie O’Ree played most of the 1957-1958 season for the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Hockey League, but he had been invited to the Boston Bruins’ training camp that fall. He returned to the Aces to start the season. In January 1958, Bruins general manager Lynn Patrick and coach Milt Schmidt called Aces general manager Punch Imlach and asked if O’Ree could join the team in Montreal for back-to-back games the weekend of Jan. 18-19.
On Jan. 18, 1958, O’Ree made his NHL debut in Montreal’s Forum. The Bruins defeated Montreal that day, and the two teams then took a train to Boston for the following game in Boston Garden. The Montreal Canadiens prevailed in the Jan. 19 game. O’Ree was returned to the Aces the following day.
O’Ree also spent part of the 1960-1961 season with the Bruins. His NHL career consisted of 45 games, during which he scored four goals and contributed 10 assists. In 1961, O’Ree was traded to the Canadiens’ organization and sent to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League, where he played until the NHL expanded to Los Angeles in 1967 and the Blades disbanded. He signed a one-year contract with the WHL’s San Diego Gulls and played with the Gulls for seven seasons until the World Hockey Association team in San Diego made 1973-1974 the final season for the WHL Gulls and for the league itself. The Pacific Hockey League later had a team in San Diego, and O’Ree was asked to be part of the 1978-1979 Hawks. He played one year with the Hawks, whose era ended when the PHL folded after that season, and he retired again at the age of 44.
In 1999, O’Ree became an ambassador for the NHL’s diversity program which encourages youth of all backgrounds to play hockey and includes providing children with equipment and transportation if necessary. O’Ree also took the NHL position of director of youth development.
The integration of the NHL occurred nearly 11 years after the integration of Major League Baseball, not due to racial prejudice but due to the lack of such prejudice. The presumption of black inferiority which was used to justify segregation was also used to justify slavery, and without such bigotry, Canada never had slavery, but thus also never imported blacks and most Canadian blacks are descendants of escaped American slaves. In the American South where more blacks lived, blacks and whites didn’t play hockey equally. The American West treated blacks more equally, but in 1958, the Californian most associated with hockey was Frank Zamboni. Additionally, Major League Baseball had 16 teams between its 1947 integration and 1958, while the NHL only had six teams, so the combination of fewer black hockey players and fewer NHL roster spots left the NHL as an all-white league until Willie O’Ree’s debut.
The Los Angeles Sentinel is that city’s black weekly paper. Because Los Angeles did not have a National Hockey League team in 1958, and Willie O’Ree had not yet played for the Blades, the Sentinel had minimal coverage on his first NHL game and even referred to him as Billy O’Ree. In all fairness to the Sentinel, any plans to have a more comprehensive story in the following week’s paper were scuttled when Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella broke his neck in an automobile accident two days before publication of that issue. Chicago had an NHL team in 1958, but Chicago’s black weekly newspaper had nothing on Willie O’Ree’s first NHL game.
To some extent, the minimal coverage was a victory for integration; the lack of a struggle – other than Willie O’Ree improving his physical skills over the years – meant that integration just happened. However, the achievement of integration by acceptance was minimized. The importance of acceptance with no legal or public relations battle was a major victory for racial equality, so even those who don’t live near San Diego, Los Angeles or Boston should be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the NHL’s integration.