10 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and played his first major league baseball game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Willie O’Ree opened an important piece of mail from the Boston Bruins. The date was July 30, 1957. The letter that arrived at his Fredericton, New Brunswick home was signed by Lynn Patrick, the General Manager of the Bruins, inviting O’Ree to the Bruins’ training camp in Boston and instructing him to report on the afternoon of Sunday, September 15.
The Bruins published their 1957-58 Press and Radio Guide that summer and listed O’Ree as one of their Minor League Reserves. The Bruins wrote: “He is the first Negro to attend the Bruins’ training camp … The 22-year-old left winger from St. John, New Brunswick, is a colorful performer … A fast skater, he bursts in from the left wing in spectacular fashion for his scoring thrusts … Willie is also a good baseball player and has had bids from the Milwaukee Braves to attend their Waycross, Ga., minor league training camp.”
O’Ree enjoyed playing baseball, but he loved hockey. So he selected hockey. He reported to the Bruins’ camp in Boston that day. And four months later, on January 18, 1958 at the Forum in Montreal, he became the first black ever to play in the National Hockey League. “They called me the Jackie Robinson of hockey,” he told a reporter in the 1970s, when he was playing for the Western Hockey League’s San Diego Gulls. “But I didn’t have any of the problems he had breaking in. I was never refused at a hotel or a restaurant, and I was well-respected by my teammates. The racist shots came when we played in any American city, not when we went into Montreal or Toronto to play. It didn’t bother me. Hell, I’d been called names most of my life. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem … not mine.”
O’Ree played two games for the Bruins in 1957-58. He returned to the minors, and reached the NHL again in 1960-61, scoring four goals and ten assists in 43 games . He scored his first NHL goal on January 1, 1961, the winner in a 3-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in the Montreal Forum. O’Ree, whose professional career began with the Quebec Aces in 1956-57, played professionally for 20 seasons. He spent most of his career in the Western Hockey League playing for the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls. O’Ree settled in San Diego, where he still lives.
At the age of 81, O’Ree is in his 18th year as an ambassador for NHL Diversity. He is the NHL’s Director of Youth Development. Despite being nearly blind in one eye since his playing days, his vision of inclusion has always been perfect.
Offered here is the original letter Willie O’Ree received at his Fredericton, New Brunswick home in August 1957 inviting him to the Boston Bruins’ 1957-58 training camp. O’Ree that season became the first black player ever to play in the National Hockey League. This 8 ¼ x 11 inch letter, on Boston Bruins stationary, is signed by then Bruins General Manager Lynn Patrick in blue pen. The letter has toned due to age, but the black type is still clear. There are two folds consistent with putting into an envelope and the edges and corners only display minor wear. There is a chip on the upper right side edge, but otherwise this piece is in good condition. There are brown fingerprint smudges present, but do not detract from the typing or signature. This signed letter comes with a full LOA from Steve Grad of Beckett Authentication for Patrick’s signature.