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First black NHL player describes breaking 2 barriers in 21-year career

Little or no fuss was made when Willie O'Ree of the Boston Bruins stepped onto the Montreal Forum ice the night of Jan. 18, 1958, becoming the first black player in National Hockey League history.

The day after he smashed his skates through the NHL's racial barrier, the newspapers didn't make a big deal out of it. Not until the Bruins called him back from the minors three seasons later was he dubbed the "Jackie Robinson of pro hockey."

But being black wasn't the only -- or even the biggest -- obstacle he faced on his road to the NHL.

As O'Ree suggested to students Thursday at the Charter School for Applied Technologies, being blinded in one eye was a bigger challenge. It happened in 1955, when O'Ree was playing for a junior hockey team in Kitchener, Ont. A slap shot from the point struck him in the right eye, leaving him with a shattered retina.

As he told the students, a Dr. Henderson came into the recovery room to deliver the news that would change his life:

"Mr. O'Ree, I'm sorry to tell you you're going to be blind in your right eye, and you'll never play hockey again."

That night, O'Ree became even more determined to hide his injury from others and do whatever he could to fulfill the dream he had crafted at age 14, to become a professional hockey player.

As a left-shooting left wing, O'Ree learned to turn his head all the way to the right to compensate for having no vision in his right eye. He also adopted a new attitude: "Forget about what you can't see and concentrate on what you can see."

So when O'Ree took the ice for the Bruins in 1958, he shattered two barriers -- as a black man with one eye.

"It just goes to show you that if you set goals for yourself and set your mind to it, you can accomplish anything," he told about 60 students in the charter school's gymnasium on Kenmore Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda.

O'Ree then repeated one of his mantras: "If you think you can, you can. If you think you can't, you're right."

O'Ree, 74, decked out in his old Bruins jersey with the number 22, came to Buffalo for the 2010 Willie O'Ree Skills Weekend presented by Hasek's Heroes.

The event, including skills sessions and a showcase game Sunday in HSBC Arena, is part of the NHL's "Hockey Is for Everyone" initiative. That effort supports youth hockey organizations in North America offering children of all backgrounds the opportunity to play the game.

During a lively question-and-answer session after his talk, O'Ree mentioned the racial taunts directed at him as the NHL's first black player.

During his first game in Chicago Stadium, O'Ree took the butt end of a stick in the mouth, losing two front teeth. He retaliated. Things got ugly, with some racial slurs tossed at the 5-foot-9-inch O'Ree. He was ejected and advised not to return to the team's bench.

So he went to the Bruins dressing room, with two police officers posted at the door. O'Ree turned out the lights, sat there alone and thought about how he was going to deal with this.

After considering going back home, he made up his mind that he wouldn't quit, telling himself, "If I'm going to leave the league, it's because I don't have the skill."

He survived 21 years in professional hockey, including 45 games with the Bruins.

Retired Buffalo Sabre Tony McKegney -- one of the first black stars in the NHL, whose pro career ran from 1978 to 1992 -- noted that he played about 15 years with two good eyes. "Mr. O'Ree played 21 with one good eye," he said.

After the talk, O'Ree was asked about the success of all the youth hockey diversity programs. The NHL now has 18 black players on its rosters.

"There are more boys and girls of color playing hockey today than ever before," he replied. "The opportunity is there. You have to have the skills and ability to play, but it's open.

"I would probably say in the next 10 to 20 years, you're going to see a big influx of players of color."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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