Willie O’Ree isn’t slowing down at 85.
Days removed from his birthday, which was Oct. 15, the NHL’s first Black player recounted his special day, the well-wishes he received from players past and present, and reflected on his extraordinary career during the latest episode of Soul on Ice: The Podcast.
“Golly, it was wonderful, I had tears in my eyes,” O’Ree told Damon Kwame Mason of the birthday video tribute. “It was just great.”
Among those to appear in the video were current NHL players Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, P.K. Subban and Mathieu Joseph, and former NHL players Jarome Iginla, Jamal Mayers, Anthony Stewart, Kevin Weekes, Georges Laraque, Anson Carter and Joel Ward. Arcadia University women’s hockey coach Kelsey Koelzer, Los Angeles Kings scout Blake Bolden, and Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James also wished O’Ree their best.
“I was flabbergasted, it was one of the nicest birthdays I’ve had and celebrated,” he said.
O’Ree is spending his first full week at 85 on a whirlwind book tour — albeit by phone due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus — promoting “Willie: The Game-Changing Story of the NHL’s First Black Player,” which went on sale Tuesday.
The book, co-authored with writer Michael McKinley, tells O’Ree’s story from his upbringing in Fredericton, New Brunswick, to his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 in the Builders category.
The new book also provides historical context and personal insights about the man who overcame racial prejudice and blindness in his right eye — the result of an injury sustained in junior hockey — to become the NHL’s first Black player when he joined the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, for a game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Forum.
It’s the latest of several books written about O’Ree, including an autobiography O’Ree also wrote with McKinley in 2000 that was aimed toward a younger audience.
But O’Ree said this one was tougher to write because it delves more into his life and some of the racially painful episodes that occurred on his path to the NHL, as well as during some of the 45 games that he played with the Bruins between 1958-61.
“This was a lot harder because it really goes in depth in my life starting from when I was born in Fredericton, growing up, the racism and stuff that I was exposed to,” he said. “Mike (McKinley) says, ‘How much detail do you really want to tell about your life?’ I said, ‘Well, just things that happened and thing that I’ve overcome.
“I’m happy with the book. I think if a lot of people get the opportunity to read it, I think they’ll say, ‘Gee, we’ve only known him playing hockey, but he was involved with other things, jobs and relationships,’ and learn what type of person I am.”