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Trailblazers: Meet The Black Man Called The Jackie Robinson Of Hockey

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Every week for Black History Month, we’re profiling a trailblazer who made underrated contributions to our history.

Last month, the Boston Bruins hockey team retired the jersey of Willie O’Ree, the first Black player of the National Hockey League. Considered the Jackie Robinson of hockey, O’Ree made his NHL debut in 1958.

But there’s more to know about Black people in the sport even before the trailblazer made history.

01Willie O’Ree became the NHL’s first Black player in 1958Willy O’Ree made his mark on the ice as the NHL’s first Black player. The extraordinary feats he accomplished during his 45-game, 4-year run in the NHL are even more remarkable considering “he was harboring a painful secret: Just two years prior, the winger had been hit by an errant puck that left him blind in one eye.” If the Bruins had known this, O’Ree would not have been eligible to play in the NHL, and the course of hockey history might have been forever altered. Willie O’Ree (L) the first black NHL player and Blake Bolden (R) the first black NWHL player | Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images 02Black hockey leagues existed before the NHLWhile the exact origins are disputed, it is a verified fact “that Black hockey leagues existed before the National Hockey League, which began in November 1917. The Colored Hockey League [CHL] was established in Nova Scotia in 1895, and lasted until 1930,” and is credited as being the first pro hockey league. Indeed, the slapshot, which is considered to be “the hardest shot in hockey” was even performed for the first time by a black player in the CHL, Halifax Eureka’s Eddie Martin. The book Black Ice details this largely unknown history. 03Some believe ice hockey also has Native American originsThe current racial makeup of the National Hockey League (NHL)— 97% white according to USA Today—might lead many to believe that hockey was invented by Europeans. There are competing claims, however, that attribute the sport to Native Americans and also Black residents of Nova Scotia who were former U.S. slaves. Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images 04Willie O’Ree inspired Black hockey players in generations to comeO’Ree has spent the majority of his life trying to improve the sport of hockey, advocating for diversity, and remains a hero for all who have come after him. Wayne Simmonds, a black Toronto Maple Leafs right winger, recently told ESPN, “I remember being 6 or 7 years old, and I told my parents, ‘I want to play hockey.’ And they said before I could, I had to look up Willie O’Ree…They wanted me to know why I was getting this opportunity to even be able to play the game. I did a lot of studying about Willie growing up, and ever since that, Willie has been my idol. Without him, not only Black children, but other BIPOC kids as well, probably wouldn’t have had their opportunities. Every ethnicity has its trailblazer; it’s first. Willie was the first….We will never let his name die. It will never die; I can tell you that” Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images 05The Boston Bruins recently retired O’Ree’s jersey, just in time for Black History MonthThe Boston Bruins raised up O’Ree’s No.22 jersey into the rafters in a retirement ceremony on January 18, 2022, more than 60 years after he first donned the uniform, and his legacy lives on “as hockey’s Jackie Robinson.” Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

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