WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — As we celebrate Black History month, the NHL and the Washington Capitals are celebrating black achievements in hockey.
The Capitals and the Canadian Embassy are hosting the NHL’s Black Hockey History Tour. The tour is a mobile museum featuring the founders, trail blazers, history makers, and Stanley Cup champions.
The museum is open to the public through Wednesday, February 27.
As part of the Capitals celebration of Black History Month, Congressman John Lewis and Willie O’Ree, who broke the color barrier in the NHL in 1958, took part in a ceremonial puck drop before the Caps’ game against the Ottawa Senators.
Earlier in the day, O’Ree took time to talk with WUSA9 sports director Darren Haynes.
The hockey hall of famer is appreciative of being celebrated by the NHL.
“Makes me feel really nice that I had the opportunity to open doors and break down barriers for not only the players of color, but the black players that were playing in the National league at the time,” says Willie O’Ree. “I stepped on the ice on January 18, 1958, in Montreal, and became the first black player in the NHL.”
For O’Ree, breaking the color barrier wasn’t something that was on his mind when it happened.
“It really didn’t dawn on me until the next day,” says the hockey hall of famer. “I read it in the papers, and I said, ‘Oh my, I just made history.’”
For Willie O’Ree, being a black hockey player meant he had to deal with racism on a constant basis.
“I don’t think there was a game that went by that I didn’t receive racial remarks or racial slurs from not only players on the opposition, but fans in the stands,” says O’Ree. “When I was playing in the American Hockey League, they were throwing cotton balls on the ice saying, ‘you should be back in the cotton fields.’ One incident, they threw a black cat on the ice. Besides being black, and being blind, I was faced with four other things: racism, prejudice, bigotry, and ignorance. I looked at these people like they were just ignorant, some of them were racist. I said I don’t have to deal with them, I just concentrated on playing hockey.”
Willie O’Ree has a message for the next generations of black hockey players, kids like those who play at Ft. Dupont.
“I know that they’re exposed to racial problems and incidents, but you just have to feel within yourself and work hard and be all that you can be,” says O’Ree. “There’s no substitute for hard work. You only get out what you put into it.”