The phrase “better late than never” couldn’t have been more appropriate for Willie O’Ree and the National Hockey League earlier this week.
At a ceremony during a game between the Carolina Hurricanes and Boston Bruins in Boston on Tuesday, O’Ree had his No. 22 retired to the rafters.
It was an honor that was a long time coming, given it was 64 years to the day that O’Ree made history by becoming the first Black player to appear in an NHL game.
O’Ree, who grew up in New Brunswick, Canada, did so on Jan. 18, 1958, during a game against the Montreal Canadiens, in the process becoming the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey.”
However, in order to make it to the NHL, O’Ree had to keep a little secret from the Bruins.
When Boston called O’Ree up from the minor leagues to replace an injured player, the organization didn’t know that O’Ree had lost 95% of the vision in his right eye two years earlier after getting hit with a puck.
Had Boston known, O’Ree wouldn’t have been called up.
“I didn’t tell anyone that I couldn’t see,” O’Ree told The Undefeated. “My sister, Betty, and my good friend, another Black player named Stan Maxwell, were the only ones who knew that I couldn’t see. I didn’t tell my mom and dad because I didn’t want them to worry. I didn’t let that stop me. Back then, they didn’t have physicals like the ones given today. I could still see out of my left eye.”
O’Ree ended up playing two games before being sent back down to the minors.
In the 1960-61 season, O’Ree got back into the NHL, appearing in 43 games for the Bruins.
He didn’t appear in the NHL after that season, finishing out his professional career in the minors before calling it quits in 1979.
O’Ree, now 86, couldn’t be in Boston in person for the retirement ceremony, but appeared virtually.
“From a young age, my heart and mind were set on making it to the NHL,” O’Ree said in a speech. “I’m grateful and honored that it was with the Bruins.”
The city of Boston also declared it “Willie O’Ree Day,” while Black players around the NHL paid tribute to him in a video during the ceremony.
O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 and has served as a diversity ambassador for the NHL.