O’Ree played his first game in the NHL on January 18, 1958.
Willie O’Ree is getting his number retired, 64 years after he skated in his first National Hockey League game as a member of the Boston Bruins. O’Ree, who was assigned number 22, was the first African-Canadian player ever to skate in the NHL. But when he hit the ice for the first time in a Boston Bruins uniform, he was just another rookie who happened to make his debut in the Montreal Forum.
There was almost no noting of the fact that O’Ree was a sports pioneer joining others in breaking the color barrier. In football, it was Bill Willis and Marion Motley, who played with All America Football Conference’s Cleveland Browns, and Kenny Washington and Woody Strode with the National Football League’s Los Angeles Rams in 1946 and the four became the first African Americans to play in big-time professional football since Joe Lillard suited up for the Chicago Cardinals on December 3rd, 1933. NFL owners systematically removed Negro players from the league over an eight-year period, Lillard and Pittsburgh Pirates player Ray Kemp were the last Negro players on rosters in the NFL during the 1933 season. Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 and was the first Negro player to perform in the Major Leagues Baseball since Moses Fleetwood Walker’s final appearance with the Toledo in 1884. Earl Lloyd was the NBA’s first African-American in the National Basketball Association with the Washington Capitols in 1950. Wee Willie Smith, though, is generally considered the first African-American to play in a professional basketball league with the National Basketball League’s Cleveland franchise in 1943. The Basketball Association of America which changed its name to the National Basketball Association after a merger with the NBL had no Negro players in its four years. O’Ree played a handful of games in the six team NHL but he is considered an historic figure.
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