Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Quebec Ace From Fredericton
I first ran into Willie at a sporting goods store in La Mesa, a town just east of San Diego, in about 1982. I was playing amateur hockey at a rink in El Cajon, another town just to the north. I'd heard that this store actually had hockey equipment. No more need to pay the inflated prices at the rink store!
I can't remember whether I met the store's owner (a pleasant old fellow who really liked hockey) first, or Willie. I remember being very surprised to learn that Willie, a black man, not only liked hockey, but knew a lot about it--more than your average sporting goods store clerk.
Aside: How many people miss store clerks who actually know something about what they're selling?
So, I began buying my sticks and replacing my old, worn out gear with new stuff from this store. I eventually learned that Willie played amateur hockey at another rink, at a level well above my own. Then, I learned that he had played minor league pro hockey--right there in San Diego for the San Diego Gulls!
Well, to make a long story even longer, I finally learned that Willie O'Ree, a Canadian black man, had played in the Canadian minors beginning in the mid-1950's, had been called up to play several games for the Boston Bruins in the National Hockey League, in 1960 and again in 1961. Further, he was the first black man to ever play in the NHL.
Soon, Willie found his way into an office job with the San Diego Hawks, then later with the reformed San Diego Gulls. There's a bust of him in the San Diego Sports Arena, and for a number of years, his live self could be found there, too.
Since I moved back to LA, I hadn't heard much about Willie, until today. The sports page of the Orange County Register, which I happened to pick up at a local newsstand, has a story in which NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is going to honor Willie at a dinner tonight in his home town, Fredericton, New Brunswick, commemorating the 50th anniversary of his breaking the NHL color barrier.
Fredericton's sports complex will be renamed "Willie O'Ree Place. Saturday, Willie is going to be honored in Boston at a Bruins game.
Willie doesn't blow his own horn much, hence the reason why, even though we used to chat a lot at the sporting goods store, it took a long while for me to get to know who he is and what his accomplishments are. I learned a lot of it from others, in later years.
Today, Willie still lives in San Diego, is retired from hockey except for being employed as a director of the league's youth development and as an ambassador for diversity.
72 and still going strong.