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Hockey great Willie O'Ree on breaking down barriers in sports

Willie O'Ree poses for a photograph during the NHL All Star Game at Bell Centre on January 25, 2009 in Montreal.
Willie O'Ree poses for a photograph during the NHL All Star Game at Bell Centre on January 25, 2009 in Montreal.
Phillip MacCallum

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While Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League baseball, there was another man facing similar ignorance and racism, all in the name of professional hockey. 

That man is William "Willie" O'Ree, who debuted with the Boston Bruins in 1958. Born October 15, 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, O'Ree played various pro hockey leagues before making it to the NHL. 

Just like Jackie Robinson, O'Ree faced the same racism and prejudice, except in a sport where men carrying large wooden sticks were routinely encouraged to slam into one another. And this was back before the head-to-toe protective gear hockey player wear today. 

After he finished with the NHL, he established himself as a dominant winger with the Western Hockey League's Los Angeles Blades and in 1967 with the San Diego Gulls. He's now the NHL's Director of Youth Development and hockey ambassador. O'Ree joins the show from his home in San Diego.

Interview Highlights:

On encountering prejudice playing for the NHL:
"When I came to the states I was introduced to racism and prejudice and bigotry and ignorance from players on the opposition and from fans in the stands. But I learned that names will never hurt you unless you let them, and I just wanted to go out and play hockey and represent the hockey club to the best of my ability, and I can honestly say that I never fought one time because of racial slurs or remarks, I fought because guys tried to spear me and butt-end me and cross-check me and take shots at my head. Back then none of the players wore any helmets and no face shields, no face guards or no cages, the goalies didn't wear any masks. So your face was exposed to pucks, sticks and everything else on the ice. I fought a lot when I first started, not because I wanted to but guys just wanted to see what I was made of."

On meeting Jackie Robinson, twice:
"When I was 14 years of age, I was playing baseball in my hometown, and we won the championship and the reward was that our teams was to be taken to New York City…I saw Mr. Robinson play at Ebbets Field, and had the pleasure of meeting him after the game. When I was introduced to him, we shook hands and I told Mr. Robinson that I also played hockey, and he remarked, 'Oh, I didn't know there were other black kids playing hockey.' I just had a great visit, what an impact he made on me.

"Then when I was playing in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, I was traded to the Los Angeles Blades in 1961. In February of 1962, the NAACP in Los Angeles had a luncheon in Mr. Robinson's honor. I received an invitation through the hockey club, we went to the luncheon and Mr. Robinson was talking to some media people an the coach for the team I was playing for went over and introduced himself to Mr. Robinson and he says, 'Mr. Robinson, I've got a young player here who is one of our star players, Willie O'Ree.' Mr Robinson looked me in the eye and said, 'Willie O'Ree, you're the young fella I met in Brooklyn,' so he remembered me from 1949 to 1962, and I can honestly say, what an impact it was and was a thrill it was for me."

On being attacked and seriously hurt during a game:
"I had fights with other players and things, but that one right there kind of topped it off. We were both thrown out of the game … I just told myself, 'Willie, if you leave the league, it's going to be because you don't have the skills and ability to play anymore, don't let a player like that try and force you out of the league.'

On how his experience with racism differed from Jackie Robinson's:
"Jackie played most of his baseball in the Southern states, I played most of my hockey in the northern states, still I was exposed to a lot of names, I don't think there was a game that went by where you didn't hear it…I just closed my ears to it, I had to. When Jackie said he has to turn the other cheek, if I did that they would have just kept on running at me and I had to make a stand and I did and it was tough, but I was there to play hockey and be the best hockey player I could be."