‘We’ve taken one step forward and two back’: Willie O’Ree on fighting racism in sports

Willie O’Ree is hopeful that one day sport will be free of racism and bigotry, but thinks it’s still a long way off.

The 84-year-old O’Ree was in Ottawa on Monday as part of the NHL’s Black History Month Tour, which features a mobile curated museum displaying the history of black hockey players in the NHL.

O’Ree became the first black player in NHL history when he suited up got the Boston Bruins for a game against Montreal on Jan. 18, 1958. He played two NHL games in the 1957-58 season and 45 more in 1960-61, scoring four goals and adding 10 assists.

Being the only black player of his generation O’Ree, endured a great deal of racism. He said he is saddened it continues to happen today.

“It’s not only happening in hockey, it’s happening in football and baseball and other sports,” O’Ree said. “Now we’re concentrating on hockey because the sport has very few black players and players of colour playing in it. I’m disappointed in that there’s still players out there that have to look at a person and judge them by the colour of their skin.

“We’ve taken one step forward and two back. I believe we’re working in the right direction, but it’s going to take a long time. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Racism was brought to the headlines in November after Akim Aliu came forward about racial slurs he endured from head coach Bill Peters while both were with of the American Hockey League’s Rockford Ice Hogs. Aliu played seven games in the NHL with the Calgary Flames and is currently playing for HC Litvinov in the Czech Extraliga.

The one thing I learned from Martin Luther King Jr. is don’t judge a person by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character …— Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player in 1958

Aliu’s comments led to Peters resigning as head coach of the Calgary Flames.

O’Ree credits Aliu for finding the fortitude to come forward.

“I believe he did the right thing,” O’Ree said. “He felt within his heart, within his mind this is what he should have done and he went out and did it. I speak of racism, prejudice and bigotry and ignorance. It happens all the time. Not only in sports, but general life. I’ve had racial remarks and racial slurs directed at me in the gas station or in a drugstore or in a mall. It’s just because the colour of your skin.

“The one thing I learned from [Martin Luther King Jr.] is don’t judge a person by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character and there’s a lot of truth to that.”

Frustrated, saddened

The latest incident of racism in hockey took place just a couple weeks back in the American Hockey League when a player was suspended five games for using a racial slur.

The fact these incidents continue to take place frustrates O’Ree, but feels hockey is moving in the right direction with fines and suspensions being given to those, both on and off the ice, who utter racial slurs.

O’Ree is most saddened when he hears of young players having to deal with racism. His message to them is simple.

“Stay focused,” he said. “Names will never hurt you unless you let them. If people can’t accept you for the individual you are then that’s their problem. I know it’s hard as I’ve talked to a lot of boys and girls that have had racial slurs directed towards them from not only players on the opposition, but players on their own team and I think it’s just a disgrace to hear players on your own team make racial remarks and racial slurs.”

O’Ree believes the most impactful change will likely come as more black players and players of colour get the opportunity to move into more prominent positions within the game itself.

Presence inspires generations

“There’s room there for coaches, managers, linesmen, referees,” O’Ree said. “Just set your goal and work towards it.

“Those players of colour and black players are there because they have the skills and abilities to be there. If they didn’t have the skills they wouldn’t be there. They have the skills and the ability to be there and they can’t help their colour. They just want to be accepted as another player and this is the way I think it should be.

“Just go out there and don’t look at a person by the colour of their skin.”

It’s been nearly more than 60 years since O’Ree played an NHL game, yet his presence continues to inspire generations as was evident by the excitement of the young children on hand to meet O’Ree.

“I still work with these kids and still tell them the same thing,” O’Ree said. “Work towards your goals. Set goals for yourself. Stay in school and get an education. Be all that you can be, feel good about yourself, like yourself. I like myself. I feel good about myself and I work with these kids and I hope I can pass something on to them that they can use in their daily life and be a better person.”

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