Last updated on June 26th, 2020 at 03:47 pm
Last Updated on June 26, 2020 Posted by Colonial Acres Coins
Canadian-born hockey player Willie O’Ree had an impressive professional career that spanned 21 seasons. However, it is not only his remarkable longevity in the sport that distinguishes his career. O’Ree was the first black hockey player to play in the National Hockey League, and also the first to score a goal in an NHL game. Accomplishing these feats meant not only overcoming racial prejudice but also an acquired physical disability. As part of Black History Month, the Royal Canadian Mint recently released a pure silver commemorative coin bearing O’Ree’s likeness to recognize his status as a trailblazer in Canadian history.
Like many Canadians, O’Ree started playing hockey at an early age. He grew up in New Brunswick, where his father worked in the road maintenance industry as a civil engineer. O’Ree reports that as a child playing hockey in New Brunswick, his race was never an issue. Unfortunately, this would not last.
Since the time that O’Ree was 13 years old, his goal was to play in the NHL. This dream was almost crushed when he was about 20 years old due to an accident in which he got hit in the right eye with a puck. A doctor advised him to give up hockey following the injury due to the 95% loss of vision in his right eye. However, O’Ree defied his doctor’s orders in returning to the ice. To keep playing, he had to keep the extent of his injury a secret because of an NHL bylaw that prohibits players from competition who are blind in one eye.
The following season, O’Ree joined the Quebec Aces, a team with a history of integration. The Aces formed a relationship with the Boston Bruins during the 1957-58 season that allowed Aces players to serve as replacements for the Bruins. In January 1958, O’Ree played for the Bruins as a replacement against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first black player to compete in the NHL. The game happened on Canadian soil at the Montreal Forum. Despite its historic nature, O’Ree’s participation in the game was barely noted at the time. Four years later, O’Ree scored the winning goal over the Canadiens to become the first black player to score a goal in the NHL.
O’Ree divided the remainder of his professional career between Canada and the United States, where he was, unfortunately, the frequent target of racial taunts by fans and opposing players. He found that Canadians tended to treat him with more respect. Though hardly acknowledged at the time, his trailblazing status eventually garnered the recognition it deserved. In 2018, he was the third black player inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame. That same year, the NHL established an award honoring those who use hockey to foster positive values and build character, naming it the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award. For over 20 years, O’Ree has been the Diversity Ambassador for “Hockey Is for Everyone,” an NHL program to promote inclusivity in the sport. In 2005, O’Ree received the Order of New Brunswick, followed by the Order of Canada five years later.
The commemorative coin honoring O’Ree is minted from 99.99% pure silver. In addition to O’Ree’s likeness, reproduced from his player photo taken during his time with the Boston Bruins, it also bears his jersey number, 22, and his signature. The Boston Bruins logo appears in the background as a subtle field pattern, only noticeable under certain lights or when viewed from different angles. The coin is an officially licensed NHL product and comes in its own decorative packaging. Only 5,500 of these coins have been minted, and they are only available in the U.S. and Canada.
Willie O’Ree’s accomplishment represents an important part of Canadian history. You can find this special souvenir at Colonial Acres Coins, along with other silver commemorative coins from the Royal Canadian Mint.