Willie O'Ree (b. October 15th 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada) is a former professional winger who played in the National Hockey League for the Boston Bruins and is most prominent for being the first black player in the NHL.
Nicknamed the Jackie Robinson of hockey due to his role in breaking the colour barrier in hockey just like Robinson did in baseball, O'Ree began his pro career with the Springfield Indians of the American Hockey League in 1957. During that season, O'Ree earned a first call up to the NHL when an injury occurred. O'Ree was then 95% blind of the right eye (a condition caused by an errant puck two years before and, successfully keeping it secret, he could play two games in the NHL, including his historic first on January 18th 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens.
O'Ree would return to the NHL in 1960-61 for 43 more games, during which he would score 4 goals and tally 10 assists. After that, O'Ree would become a career minor-leaguer, playing chiefly in the Western Hockey League, the Eastern Professional Hockey League and one season in the American Hockey League with the New Haven Nighthawks. He would retire in 1979 after one last season in the Pacific Hockey League.
O'Ree was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984. He later became the Director of Youth Development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force, a non-profit program for minority youth that encourages them to learn and play hockey. As of the mid-2000s, O'Ree lives in Berkeley, California.
On the afternoon of January 19, 2008, the Bruins and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly honoured O'Ree at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston to mark the 50th anniversary of his NHL debut. In addition, The Sports Museum of New England located in TD Banknorth Garden, established a special exhibit on O'Ree's career, comprising many items on loan from his personal collection.
On February 5, 2008, ESPN did a special on him in honour of Black History Month.
There is a hockey rink named in his honour in his childhood home town of Fredericton, Willie O'Ree Place.