O’Ree is the first Black player in the NHL

 By Stephen Weir

Willie O’Ree with his new coin

It was tough enough for Willie O’Ree to break into the NHL as the first black player, but, to play with only one eye for 22-years, now, that is an accomplishment.  The Canadian Mint agrees, and on Tuesday morning issued a $20 silver coin to honour the man.

It was over 60 years ago that Fredericton-born Willie O’Ree made sports and human rights history when he played for the Boston Bruins in a game against the Montreal Canadians. It was January 18, 1958 and though he only played in the NHL for 44-games, he remains to this day a hockey legend. 

The Mint is marking both Black History Month and O’Ree’s ground-breaking legacy by issuing a 99.99% pure silver collector’s coin. 

Called up as a short-term replacement at the time of his historic 1958 NHL debut, O’Ree played 43 more games for the Boston Bruins during the 1960-61 season.  He scored four goals and 10 assists while enduring racist taunts by opposing players and fans.

Willie O’Ree show his skills

Traded to the Montreal Canadiens, O’Ree played 14 seasons in the minors  without telling anyone he was blind in the right eye after getting hit by a punch. He called it a career in 1979.

 O’Ree remembers the advice that his brother gave him when he made it to the Big Show “You’ll have problems with other people because of your race. You’ll be called names. Don’t let that interfere with what you really want to accomplish. If you stay focused on playing to the best of your ability and representing your hockey club, the other stuff will fall by the wayside.”

After his hockey career ended O’Ree worked security at an American hotel, but the league never forgot him. O’Ree returned to the NHL in 1998 as an ambassador for diversity, a role he continues to play today.

Willie O’Ree with the new coin

He inspired the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award and received both the Order of Canada and Order of New Brunswick. O’Ree’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 recognizes his far-reaching impact on the game.

“I am humbled and beyond grateful to have my image displayed on the Canadian silver coin,” said O’Ree.

Willie O’Ree coin, issued to coincide with Black History Month, features an engraved player portrait of him. His signature appears above his jersey number (22), while the Boston Bruins team logo forms a repeating field pattern.

Only 5,500 coins have been printed of the collector’s item