Willie O’Ree honored with jersey retirement, Congressional recognition

The former Boston Bruin became the NHL’s first Black player when he debuted in 1958



The Boston Bruins retired Willie O’Ree’s #22 jersey on Tuesday.

On Jan. 18, 1958, two of the NHL’s oldest rivals squared off in a historic game during the Original Six era.

The storyline from that game is not the 3-0 score, nor is it the 20 penalty minutes the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens split. The game is remembered for one skater’s debut: Boston’s Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first Black player. 

O’Ree did not score or set up a goal in the game, and his NHL career was a short one at just 45 games — two during the 1957-58 season, and 43 more during the 1960-61 campaign. He scored four goals and recorded 10 assists, and went on to enjoy a productive career in the defunct Western Hockey League in the 1960s and 1970s.

But O’Ree, now 86 years old, will forever hold the “Jackie Robinson of hockey” nickname for shattering the NHL’s color barrier more than six decades ago.

O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 as a “Builder.” This special category is  “defined by ‘coaching, managerial, or executive ability, or ability in another significant off-ice role… contributions to his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general.'”

Without O’Ree, the NHL path would be far less clear for players such as PK Subban, Wayne Simmonds, Seth and Caleb Jones, Dustin Byfuglien, and fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla.

On Tuesday, 64 years to the day since he debuted for the Bruins, the team retired O’Ree’s number, ensuring no Boston player will ever wear it again. And on Wednesday, the United States House of Representatives unanimously voted 426-0 to pass a bill awarding O’Ree the Congressional Gold Medal.

Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan originally introduced the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act in February 2021. Stabenow and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina then reintroduced it, and it passed the Senate unanimously last July.

At this time, bill S.452 sits on President Joe Biden’s desk for review.