TORONTO — It’s been 60 years since Willie O’Ree broke the National Hockey League’s colour barrier and he still hears racial remarks in the rink.
As the new documentary “Willie” shows, the Fredericton native who became the first black hockey player in the NHL is still working hard to foster diversity in sports and help young players overcome obstacles and hatred.
“I still go to the games and I watch and still see racial remarks and slurs directed to the players and I just shake my head,” the 83-year-old said in an interview in Toronto, where the film is screening at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
“I still just can’t believe it. When I played, there were only six teams in the National Hockey League — there were two from Canada and four from the United States — and there was the prejudice there. But now we have 31 teams and more players that are playing now and I just can’t believe what’s going on.
“It’s not going to end overnight. It’s going to take still a long time to overcome the racial problems that we have in hockey.”
Directed by Montreal-raised Laurence Mathieu-Leger, “Willie” shows just how fiercely determined O’Ree was to play professional hockey and skate in the NHL — goals he set at age 14.
Growing up in Fredericton, the youngest of 13 children, he would sleep overnight at the skating arena so he could get on the ice first thing the next morning.
The gifted athlete excelled at many sports and was even scouted by agents for the Milwaukee Braves minor-league baseball training camp in Atlanta, where he witnessed the segregation of the American South for the first time. While there, he had to use the “coloured only” rest room, sleep in a dorm with other players of colour, and stay at the back of the bus on the ride home, he recalled.
“When I stepped off the bus, I said, ‘Willie, forget about baseball and concentrate on hockey.”’
But racism also followed O’Ree in hockey and as he rose in the ranks of the sport, he faced another major hurdle: A puck ricocheted off a stick on the ice and hit his face, breaking his nose, part of his cheek and shattering the retina in his right eye.
He ended up blind in that eye but kept it a secret from everyone except his younger sister, who didn’t tell anyone, just so he could keep playing. Five to six weeks later, he was back on the ice.
Hockey great Wayne Gretzky is among those in the doc who speak about how remarkable O’Ree was for persevering through it all and eventually making his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958.
“Besides being black and being blind, I was faced with four other things: racism, prejudice, bigotry and ignorance,” O’Ree said, noting he faced racial slurs in practically every game he played.
“But my older brother told me, ‘Willie, names will never hurt you unless you let them.”’
The doc also shows O’Ree tracing the history of his ancestors, one of whom escaped slavery in the South.
O’Ree retired from professional hockey in 1980.
These days he is an ambassador for the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone program, which pushes for “a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families.” The doc shows him mentoring young players, some of whom have encountered racism on the ice.
“I’ve come into contact with numerous boys and girls and helped them to overcome some of the racial slurs and racial remarks that have been directed towards them,” O’Ree said.
“I mean 10, 11, 12, 13-year-old boys and girls coming off the ice because of racial remarks and I just can’t understand it. It really hurts me to know that these boys and girls are still faced with it at this day and age.”
As the film shows, O’Ree is also now a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, after being inducted last November.
“You can do anything you set your mind to do, if you feel it within your heart and within your mind,” he said.
Mathieu-Leger said the film was “an opportunity to shed light on his incredible story and inspire people and also to make them remember.”
“You need to remember what people fought for and that we can’t just say whatever we want,” she said.
“We live in contentious times politically and there’s been this new comfort to say whatever you want about anyone, and people fought really hard to be respected, all marginalized groups. So Willie’s story I think invites everyone in and helps everyone to feel compassion.”