Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The City of Willie & Jackie

The strain of his accomplishment was often blamed for Jackie Robinson’s precarious death, looking 20 years older than he was when expiring at age 53. Of his own admission, what kept him going all through his arduous pro career, aside from paving the way for future generations of African Americans athletes, is remembering the way he had been treated when spending a season with the Dodger’s farm team, the Montreal Royals. The race question was a much less thorny one in Canada during the mid-forties, and having the first black player in decades with their team was no great taboo for the Royals fans, unless he wasn’t any good. Jackie was welcomed with open arms from the get go, and he paid it back generously by leading his team to win the 1946 Little World Series.

When the final championship game was won that year, Robinson had to leave the stadium running for his life, chased down the streets by a sheer mob of baseball fanatics. Reporter Sam Maltin then described it as probably the first time in history that a black man was pursued by a white crowd with love on their mind. 11-year-old African-Canadian Willie O’Ree would remember that scene just as vividly as once meeting the man himself, and the city in which he did.

 Growing up in Canada during the 1940s meant treating Hockey as one would religion itself, and religion was an integral part of every day life back then. In THAT disciplin rather than Baseball, Willie O'Ree was quite the athlete. Now that a black man could aspire to join the “big boys” thanks to Jackie Robinson, the young man spent his teens perfecting his play among amateur leagues until scoring a farm-team contract with the NHL’s Boston Bruins in the 1950s. The treat made him the second black player drafted in the majors after Art Dorrington of the New York Rangers franchise, though neither of them had been invited on an NHL rink yet, and O’Ree’s hopes to do so came close to tumbling down in 1956. A slap shot landing the puck on his right eye made it 95% blind, a handicap synonymous with instant-retirement to professional athletes. For Willie however, it simply meant putting double the efforts to overcome and conceal his significant disability.

Before 1967, only 6 teams populated the NHL, making strong rivalries between two teams much more common and often elevated to the point of quasi-blood feuds. For the Boston Bruins, losing a star player to an injury the day before a big game against mortal enemies the Montreal Canadians was unacceptable, and meant replacing him with the best player located as near as possible. The very situation happened on January 18th 1958, as the nearest Bruins farm team was the Aces, three hours away in Qu├ębec city. And the star player on that team, the one called up to play in Montreal, was a young stick of dynamite named Willie O’Ree.

It probably would have been nice for him to score in his team’s shut-out victory, but the true significance of the game for O’Ree, the spectators and the league in general, is to have been part of another historical first in pro sports history, the first NHL game to see a black player on the ice. He only played once more with the Bruins that year, and returned during the 1961 season, his last playing the NHL, for 43 more games. Ironically, 43 is the age at which he finally retired from Hockey in 1978, having followed his Bruins gig with many seasons in the defunct Western Hockey League and other semi-pro circuits.

History might have been made in 1958; it still had to wait for society to catch up. Only 16 years later would other black players be drafted in the NHL, but mostly because much fewer of them are interested in the sport than, say, Baseball…50 years to the day after the fateful Bruins-Canadiens game, a special ceremony was held by the Boston team in honor or Willie O’Ree, an opportunity to launch, in their Arena’s New England Sports Museum, an exhibit covering the player’s Hockey Career and historical contribution.

Today, even in his 70s, Willie O’Ree still dwells in the Hockey world, notably writing a Q&A column for the official NHL website and coaching at hockey camps for kids. And every time he talks about his first big game, he never fails to mention that it happened in front of the people who had welcomed Jackie Robinson with open arms.