Willie O’Ree continues to inspire UTM students
Empowering tomorrow’s hockey players through Willie O’Ree.

There was a thin layer of snow atop the Montreal Forum on January 18, 1958, when the Montreal Canadians faced the Boston Bruins in what would be a historic night for the National Hockey League. Willie O’Ree, a Black Canadian hockey player from Fredericton, New Brunswick, laced his skates for his NHL debut. It would be the first time any Black player stepped on the ice in an NHL uniform. 

O’Ree played two games in the 1957-58 season before playing another 43 with the Bruins three seasons later. He ended his NHL career with four goals and 10 assists before returning to other professional hockey leagues, where he continued to play until he was 43, winning two scoring titles in the Western Hockey League (WHL).

Despite his NHL career lasting only 45 games, O’Ree broke barriers in hockey that laid the foundation for future generations of Black hockey players to shine. Evander Kane, Seth Jones, and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ very own Ryan Reaves are just three of 34 active Black players in the NHL. His actions have paved the way for Black youth in Canadian hockey, including star forward on the UTM Men’s Hockey team, Everton Smith.

“Willie O’Ree demonstrated immense courage and resilience to break the NHL’s race barrier. It is his legacy that has opened the door for so many Black individuals to become fans or even players of the sport,” Smith responded when asked about O’Ree’s influence on hockey.

Hockey has been scrutinized for its exclusionary nature. O’Ree faced racial challenges throughout his career, including being taunted with racial slurs – a problem that still plagues Black hockey players, including Smith, today. However, Smith points out, subtler forms of racism are also pushing Black players away from hockey: “When I was younger it did not take long for me to realize that very few people on my teams […] shared my background […] I often felt uncomfortable walking into arenas seeing that myself and my family were the only Black people present.”

A financial barrier also prevents new players from entering the sport. A recent article from FloHockey found the average player cost per year for youth hockey to be $5,128 CAD, and with equipment costs accounting for nearly half of the figure, families are understandably hesitant to make a long-term commitment to the sport. The high point of entry is often enough to convince families to enroll their kids in other activities, such as soccer or basketball, which require less equipment and are significantly cheaper.

Still, Hockey is slowly working to become more accessible to everyone. The Hockey Canada Foundation and Canadian Tire’s JumpStart Program offer subsidies to parents for equipment and registration costs. Last season, the NHL released its first-ever diversity report, highlighting its effort to promote social change within its boundaries. Despite this, hockey still faces intense backlash as racism continues to make headlines in the White-dominated sport.

Even so, Smith is still optimistic regarding the future of the game he loves. “The growth has been slow, but I do hope that over time there are more young Black people who choose to play hockey. I do believe that the values of the sport extend beyond the ice. It has taught me how to work well in a team, the value of hard work, and through hockey, I have made many friends. I hope that over time, as more Black players begin playing hockey, they too will be able to spread the sport to friends and families and contribute to its growth.”

One Comment

  1. An excellent overview of a legend and some of the barriers preventing people from enrolling in hockey today.


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