Black hockey trailblazer Willie O'Ree featured in new Hot Docs film
A new documentary about the man who broke the NHL’s colour barrier made its world premiere this week.
“Willie,” the story of Willie O’Ree, is screening at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.
The film uses archival footage from television broadcasts as well as original interviews and never-before-seen home videos to tell the story of O’Ree, who in 1958 became the first black man to play at the NHL level.
Speaking to CTV News Channel on Wednesday, O’Ree said he wasn’t aware of the momentous nature of his first game because he was focused only on helping his Boston Bruins defeat the powerhouse Montreal Canadiens.
“I didn’t realize that I had broke barriers and opened doors for other black players … until I read it in the paper the next day,” he said.
If O’Ree wasn’t aware, other players wanted to make certain he was. O’Ree said he had to deal with every racist insult in the book, as well as black cats and cotton balls being thrown on the ice by fans.
O’Ree suited up in 45 games over two seasons for the Bruins, compiling 14 points and 26 penalty minutes. He got into a few fights, but never as a response to racism, thanks to a lesson imparted by his brother.
“He taught me a lot. He said, ‘As far as names, Willie, they’ll never hurt you unless you let them. If people can’t accept you for the individual you are … that’s their problem, not yours,’” he said.
“All I wanted to do was play hockey, and I stayed focused on playing hockey.”
Being black wasn’t the only obstacle O’Ree faced in his quest to make the NHL. Near the end of his final junior year, a puck ricocheted off a stick and hit him in the right eye, shattering his retina.
He was told he would never be able to play hockey again. Five weeks later, he was back on the ice – hiding his newfound blindness from almost everybody in his life, including his parents.
“I knew if I told them they would try to get me to quit,” he said.
After the season ended, O’Ree got a call from the Quebec Aces, at the time one of the top semi-professional teams in the country. He tried out for the Aces and won a place on the team. Less than two seasons later, he was en route to Boston for his NHL debut. He never did reveal his blindness until after he’d retired from the sport.
Despite his trailblazing accomplishment, O’Ree’s legacy faded after his hockey-playing days were over. While many diehard hockey fans knew his name, it was more in the context of being the answer to a trivia question -- far from the reverence baseball fans gave Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play that sport at its highest level.
Documentary director Laurence Mathieu-Leger only learned about O’Ree a little over a year ago, when her neighbour mentioned that he was behind a push to get him inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“I grew up in Montreal, and I didn’t even know who the first black player was. I thought that was embarrassing,” she told CTV News Channel.
The neighbour set up an introductory meeting between Mathieu-Leger and O’Ree in early 2018. A month later, they were in Fredericton -- O’Ree’s hometown -- to start filming.
“The reaction has been really great,” Mathieu-Leger said.
“I think everyone feels inspired and feels like they can be part of the story to some extent.”
Now 83, O’Ree tours across North America, instructing at hockey camps and speaking to children at schools. One of his main messages is something he can undoubtedly apply to his own life and career: “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right.”