O’Ree was raised in a large family in Fredericton, NB. O’Ree’s father, Harry, was a civil engineer who worked in the road maintenance industry for the city of Fredericton. O’Ree started playing hockey at age three and organized hockey at age five. He instantly had a passion for the game. O’Ree played regularly on the backyard rink of the family home and skated to school when weather permitted. O’Ree has positive memories of growing up in New Brunswick. You could have been purple with a green stripe down the middle of your forehead, and it wouldn’t have mattered.
Playing Hockey in New Brunswick and QuebecWhen O’Ree was 14 years old, he played organized hockey with his brother Richard, who was in his twenties and taught Willie how to bodycheck. By the time O’Ree was 15, he was playing for the Fredericton Falcons in the New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association playoffs. Over the next three years, O’Ree progressed through the Fredericton hockey system. In 1951–52, he played with the Fredericton Merchants of the York County Hockey League and three games with the Fredericton Capitals of the New Brunswick Senior Hockey League. After a season with the Junior Capitals, O’Ree made a step up to the senior ranks for a full season in 1953–54. While with the Fredericton Capitals, O’Ree played in the Allan Cup tournament, where he scored seven goals in seven games. At age 19, O’Ree moved to Quebec and played the 1954–55 season with the Quebec Frontenacs of the Quebec Junior Hockey League, where he had 27 goals and 17 assists for 44 points in 43 games. Serious Eye InjuryIn 1955–56, O’Ree played for the Kitchener Canucks of the Ontario Hockey Association. In one game, he got hit in the right eye with the puck.
The shot also broke his nose and cheekbone. He was back on the ice within two months. However, O’Ree could not tell anyone about the injury. O’Ree kept the injury as secret as possible. I never took an eye exam in all the 21 years I played. I never sat in front of an eye machine. O’Ree was extremely determined to make the NHL. The Quebec AcesO’Ree returned to playing hockey in Quebec after one year in Ontario and was eighth in team scoring with the Quebec Aces in the 1956–57 season. O’Ree would go on to play two more seasons with the Aces in 1957–58 and 1958–59. As an organization, the Aces had a history of integration. A member of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, Carnegie was one of the best players in hockey history to have never played professionally. While playing with the Quebec Aces, O’Ree played on the same line with Stan Maxwell, another Black Canadian. Like O’Ree, Maxwell played for the Aces from 1956 to 1959. NHL DebutThe relationship meant that Aces players could be called up to the Bruins at any time.
O’Ree made hockey history on 18 January 1958 by becoming the first Black hockey player to play a game in the National Hockey League. After playing only two games in the 1957–58 season, O’Ree returned to the Bruins in the 1960–61 season and scored 4 goals and 10 assists for 14 points in 43 regular season games. On 1 January 1961, O’Ree also became the first Black player to score a goal in the NHL in a 3–2 win over the Canadiens. The fact that O’Ree was the first Black player to play in the NHL received little interest at the time. O’Ree’s NHL debut may have caused little reaction in Montreal because local sports fans were already familiar with O’Ree, who had played occasionally in Montreal as a member of the Quebec Aces. Post-NHL YearsThe Los Angeles Blades were weak at right wing and head coach Alf Pike had O’Ree change positions.
O’Ree delivered instant results, recording 38 goals that season, a personal best. O’Ree did, however, experience racial taunts from opposing players and fans. One night while playing in Virginia in the 1972–73 AHL season, fans tossed cotton balls and a black cat onto the ice. Throughout his time playing hockey, O’Ree remembers being treated worse in the United States than Canada. While playing with the Bruins in the 1960–61 season, O’Ree was the victim of racial taunts from a Chicago Black Hawks player. The player also butt-ended O’Ree with his stick and knocked out his teeth. O’Ree retaliated by breaking his stick over the player’s head and a brawl broke out. Hockey AmbassadorSince 1998, O’Ree has been the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and ambassador for NHL Diversity. He has travelled throughout North America to promote grassroots hockey programs, with a focus on serving economically disadvantaged children.
Honours and AwardsIn 2003, O’Ree was named the Lester Patrick Trophy winner for his outstanding service to hockey in the United States. In 2010,O’Ree received the Order of Canada for his outstanding service to youth development and promoting hockey within North America. O’Ree also received the Order of New Brunswick and is an honoured member of the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 1984.