February 17, 2016
Willie O’Ree is a well-known name in the hockey community. The man who broke the colour barrier for professional hockey, Willie’s story has been hailed as a true triumph for inclusion in hockey, a role that he never truly understood while he was playing but which has driven his work with the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone Initiative ever since. In The Willie O’Ree Story: Hockey’s Black Pioneer, O’Ree wrote:
“The fact that I was black never came up when we played as kids. You could have been purple with a green stripe down the middle of your forehead, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was only later, when I became older, that I learned what ‘colour barrier’ meant.”
A lesser know, and purposefully secret obstacle that Willie faced on his way to the NHL and while playing with the Boston Bruins was that at the age of 20, while playing with the Kitchener Canucks of the Ontario Hockey League, O’Ree took a puck to the face which left him 95% blind in his right eye. Determined to reach his ultimate goal of playing in the NHL, O’Ree kept this a secret and had to re-learn how to play the game with only one eye.
“I had to play hockey again, because I had to make it to the NHL. That was always the goal, you see, ever since I was 13, and I wasn’t going to let anybody or anything stop me.”
Fast forward to present day. Willie O’Ree, an ambassador for equality and diversity speaks to thousands of children each year. In February 2016, Willie was Hockey Education Reaching Out Society’s (HEROS) guest of honour during a visit to Alberta. While in Edmonton, Willie told his story to the HEROS participants, at-risk youth from the Beverley neighbourhood. After finishing his message, Willie asked the children if they had any questions. Some typical questions about what it was like to play in the NHL came up and then Ethan rose his hand and was called upon.
Ethan stood up and said “I am blind in my left eye too.”
Ethan and Willie got together and shared some stories and laughs about how together they have one good pair of eyes. Ethan learned that Willie now has a prosthetic lens, just like him. Willie shared tips about navigating life, and hockey, with a visual impairment and how to make the most of his time on the ice.
While holding back tears, Ethan’s mother Tanya said “He’s never told anyone about his eye. He wasn’t sure if he could join HEROS because of his vision and he is always so self-conscious about it. I can’t believe that a story of a man breaking the colour barrier in the 1950’s would have such an impact on my son.”
“Only at HEROS,” laughs Kevin Hodgson, Director of Program Operations for HEROS. “One of the amazing things about our program is that stories like this happen all of the time. We’ll have NHL legends like Willie out to speak with the kids and they’ll connect with them on such a deeper level. Ethan probably didn’t really understand how meaningful Willie’s career was. He just saw him as a cool man who knew exactly what he was going through with his eye and because of that, they became instant friends. That is what is inspiring to our participants; by meeting these iconic people, they learn that they are just people who were once young with dreams and that with support, hard work and commitment, they can achieve their dreams too, no matter what stands in their way.”