Monday, October 5, 2009

Jim Crow Museum Question of the Month: Hockey Pioneer Willie O'Ree

Jim Crow Museum Question of the Month: October 2009

Question: You hear so much, at least in February, about Jackie Robinson. Why don’t you hear anything about Willie O’Ree, the first African American to play professional hockey?

Stephan Lockweed - Boston, Massachusetts

O’Ree was born in 1935 and grew up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, a Canadian province just north of Maine, thus he was an African Canadian, not an African American. As a very young child, probably around 3 years of age, he began ice skating and, by the age of five, he was playing in a local hockey league. While in high school he played on what was then a “junior” team, comparable today to playing college hockey in the United States.
Despite being an outstanding junior league player, O'Ree's journey to the National Hockey League (NHL) got a lot more difficult during the 1955/1956 hockey season when, while playing for the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks, he was struck with a puck in his face. The injury cost him 95 percent of the vision in his right eye. Doctors advised him to retire, but eight weeks after the injury, he was playing hockey. Because of the injury, O’Ree had to switch positions. In his words, "Being a left wing, my right eye was closest to the puck. When I came back, I would lose sight of the puck, and I was getting body checked much more. So I switched to the right side. I had to take most of the passes on my backhand, but it didn't bother me. At least I had vision of the rink."

Check Out The Full Response To The Jim Crow Museum Question Of The Month:

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