Willie Eldon O’Ree, (born Oct. 15, 1935) a former professional ice hockey player from Canada, is called the “Jackie Robinson of Ice Hockey” for having broken the color barrier in the National Hockey League, https://www.nhl.com/ or NHL.
O’Ree, who played as a winger for the Boston Bruins, has said he met Robinson twice in his younger years. O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame https://www.hhof.com/ in November 2018.
That same year, according to Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willie_O%27Ree the NHL instituted the annual Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award in his honor, to “recognize the individual who has worked to make a positive impact on his or her community, culture or society to make people better through hockey.”
During his career, O’Ree faced many of the same challenges that Robinson faced as the first man of color in a predominately White sport. Before O’Ree, Art Dorrington was the first Black player to sign an NHL contract with the New York Rangers organization, though Dorrington never played beyond the minor league level.
“Racist remarks were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto and Montreal,” O’Ree attested. “Fans would yell, ‘Go back to the South’ and ‘How come you’re not picking cotton?’ Things like that. It didn’t bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.”
O’Ree helped make it possible for more Black players to join the league. After O’Ree’s stint in the NHL, there were no other Black players in the NHL until 1974, when the Washington Capitals drafted Mike Marson. Like O’Ree, Marson is Canadian by birth.
By the mid-2010s, there were 23 Black players in the NHL, including P. K. Subban, one of the league’s current most popular players. The NHL requires its players to enroll in a preseason diversity training seminar and punishes racially based verbal abuse with suspensions and fines.
Since 1998, O’Ree has been the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador. He travels across North America to schools and hockey programs to promote inclusion, dedication and confidence.
The NBA Championship and Stanley Cup Finals play during the same two-week period. Many sports enthusiasts inside prison watch both, exposing the incarcerated population to the NHL and helping grow its appeal.