He Did It With One Eye (The Willie O’Ree Episode with Ashok and Hari Kondabolu)
In our last episode this season, we are joined by two super silly dudes with cool attitudes: the Kondabolu brothers (Ashok and Hari)! And today, I’m going to tell them the story about one of the most amazing people in US Sports history: Willie O’Ree – the FIRST! Black hockey player in the NHL.
Ashok Kondabolu, Kareem Rahma, Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Hari Kondabolu
Kareem Rahma 00:18
All right, I want to show you guys a picture. You’re gonna tell me if you know who this person as you can also guess.
Ashok Kondabolu 00:26
Who is that man? Look at the Black and White. So it’s from this 60s. Is it going to say random name, is it Bootsy Collins?
Hari Kondabolu 00:37
My guess is it’s a young ballplayer that might be racial profile. It’s not a race. It’s that shirt. He’s wearing a sporty shirt that
Kareem Rahma 00:47
They actually don’t use a ball in the sport.
Hari Kondabolu 00:50
Is it a hockey players?
Kareem Rahma 00:57
This is Willie O’Ree. Who is the first Black NHL player.
Ashok Kondabolu 01:04
I have heard of that name I didn’t know was actually.
Kareem Rahma 01:08
I’m about to tell it to you. Fantastic. Let’s go. What’s up, y’all? I’m Kareem Rahma, and welcome to First a funny show about spectacular people who had a serious impact on society and culture because they were first. Today I’m sitting with two super silly dudes with cool attitudes, the Kondabolu brothers, and I’m going to tell them the story about one of the most amazing people in sports history. Willie, O’Ree, the first Black player in the NHL. Ashok please speak now or forever hold your peace. People need to know your voice.
Ashok Kondabolu 01:52
Hari Kondabolu 01:55
Ashok complies he’s one of several jokes.
Kareem Rahma 02:03
And that’s Hari.
Hari Kondabolu 02:06
I’m Hari Kondabolu, how’s it going.
Kareem Rahma 02:07
That’s right. So now that you know who is who we’re gonna get into it. Many hockey fans don’t know the story. I’m about to tell you, the story of Willie O’Ree. It’s unbelievable. Not just because he broke a color barrier. But because he did it with one eye.
Ashok Kondabolu 02:26
I got a weird thing to lie about So yeah, that’s race wasn’t such a thing. Didn’t call them one eyed Willy did they know they didn’t sense and so luckily, because of race. They didn’t call him one eyed Willie. They call them, Black Willie.
Kareem Rahma 02:51
Actually, even more interestingly, no one knew he had one eye. He had two eyes in his face, but one of them did not work. And he secretly hid it from everyone. Fucking fire. So hockey was an all-White sport until 1948 When Larry Kuang a Chinese Canadian played less than one minute with the New York Rangers. Then Willie O’Ree came along 10 years later played 45 games with the Boston Bruins. The Canadian native didn’t even know he was a pioneer until the day after his first game when headlines announced that history had been made. Since then, hockey is still overwhelmingly white. But it’s even more reason to take a moment and learn the story of hockey’s Jackie Robinson. Let’s get into it. He was born on October 15th 1935, in Fredericton, New Brunswick, one of the smallest provinces in Canada. He was his parents 13th and final child, though only 9 of them survived birth. Growing up there were only two black families in the entire city including the O’Ree’s and they lived on the same street. Willie started skating when he was just three years old. He doesn’t need a rink. His father used the garden hose to spray water on the back lawn and let the freezing temperatures do the rest.
Ashok Kondabolu 02:51
Well, first of all, that would have destroyed the lawn. So it’s not really a lot.
Hari Kondabolu 02:56
imagine if you have nine kids, you have to make some concessions.
Ashok Kondabolu 04:40
How big was the backyard? Because it wasn’t like a legit because otherwise it would have just been this tiny because I’m thinking like New York City backyard.
Kareem Rahma 04:51
But this was also a suburb. It was a foreign country like my backyard. Minnesota was fucking huge. It would have been like an Olympic sized pool. Where did you guys grew up? Oh, so no backyards. No Olympic sized hockey rinks.
Ashok Kondabolu 05:04
No, wait, there might have been who knows there was a lot of White kids.
Kareem Rahma 05:08
I’m gonna get back to the story off. Willie didn’t have ice skates either. Instead, his father attached metal blades, the bottom of two woodblocks and strapped them to his shoes. His dad didn’t skate but his oldest brother Richard did. Richard was a talented hockey player, and he noticed how much we love to skate. So we took him under his wing. It was gentle at first, just passing the puck to each other. And as Willie got older, Richard made Willie do skating drills until skating backwards and stopping became second nature. He’d also start to check him pretty hard, smashing young Willie into the board.
Ashok Kondabolu 05:40
Well, I mean, that’s that line between abuse and training. Well, I mean, he flooded the yards. Yeah, at that point. It’s like you’re not quitting now.
Kareem Rahma 05:52
Willie recalled. Sometimes the tears would come to my eyes and I’d say Why are you hitting me so hard?
Hari Kondabolu 05:59
That is not inspiring in the slightest.
Kareem Rahma 06:03
He said, I just want to let you know if you plan to play professionally one day, you’ll be hit a lot harder than that.
Ashok Kondabolu 06:09
Again, that doesn’t fit that’s inspired
Hari Kondabolu 06:13
You gotta toughen him up.
Ashok Kondabolu 06:21
Then eventually the callus becomes an internal callus and then you become emotionally void. But sometimes the internal callus forms even without an external callus.
Kareem Rahma 06:32
Oh shit. Deep boys hashtag deep boys.
Hari Kondabolu 06:37
That hashtag might have been used already.
Kareem Rahma 06:52
By 14, Willie had already become known around the neighborhood for being the best hockey player around. He was quick, strong, hard to knock off the puck and knew how to get into great positions to pass and score. He was obsessed with hockey. He listened to Hockey night in Canada on the radio. There was no TV back then. And listen to the announcer called games for his favorite team. The Montreal Canadians.
Ashok Kondabolu 07:12
There was no TV back then he was born in 1935. Right. So this would have been what like the late 40s, early 50s. When this was TV.
Kareem Rahma 07:20
The number of television sets in use rose from 6000 in 1946, to some 12 million by 1951. Talk about hockey stick growth right there. That’s a lot of TV. So you would listen he would listen the announcer call game there weren’t highlight reels or anything and he never saw his favorite player Maurice Richard score.
Ashok Kondabolu 07:52
There’s actually two rushing yards. There’s Maurice rocket Rashard and his brother whose name I forget, but they called him pocket rocket, which is very funny.
Kareem Rahma 08:00
Wait, was he a hockey player?
Ashok Kondabolu 08:02
He was a hockey player. He was in our deep boys.
Kareem Rahma 08:11
That’s so tight. Wait, how do you know this stuff?
Hari Kondabolu 08:15
[…] but he has an ESPN watcher in the evening. Bigger surprise there a hurricane Ebola fans.
Kareem Rahma 08:26
Because there was no TV Willie also had no idea that there weren’t any Black hockey players. Willie also inherited some baseball talent from his dad. He played shortstop position that needed a lot of speeds so he was good at it and his team won the championship. Their reward was a team trip to New York City to see the sights and watch a baseball game at Ebbets Field. That’s where Jackie Robinson was playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. They encountered each other and it was a surreal encounter.
Hari Kondabolu 08:55
What you encounter because he’s like, What? 12. So what does that mean that he encountered him? You just saw him play?
Kareem Rahma 09:01
No, they met, that’s what you’re about to tell him? In his words. I met him. We talked about baseball, and I said, Mr. Robinson, I play hockey too. And he said, oh, there are Black kids playing hockey? I said, Oh, yes, there are. I told him he was looking at one and that he’d see me make my mark on the game the way he’d made his on baseball.
Ashok Kondabolu 09:29
Not going to happen.
Kareem Rahma 09:34
This was a bold thing to say because that same year, even though Willie was the best hockey player at school, he got kicked off the team. He had checked a teammate at practice and broke their collarbone. And that teammate happened to be the coach’s son
Hari Kondabolu 09:50
He said I was just trying to build his neck callus like father did.
Kareem Rahma 09:55
But it worked out for him in the end because without a team Willie joined a local Amateur Hockey Key League. He was the youngest player on the amateur team and even though other players were bigger, he was used to playing with his older brother Richard, who was over 200 pounds. So Willie’s game was impressive and he played up through the Amateur Hockey system. Just one year later, he was recruited into the senior Hockey League, where he scored seven goals and seven games to help his team win the tournament.
Ashok Kondabolu 10:27
To be fair, like senior hockey, everyone’s like 70 or 80 years old. So this guy is like..
Kareem Rahma 10:41
But I’m also so gullible that I was gonna be like, oh, yeah, me too.
Hari Kondabolu 10:48
This senior citizen League.
Kareem Rahma 10:56
Though Willie wasn’t bullied for being black. He didn’t date as a teen because he knew the image of a black boy and a white girl would be extreme, even for his tolerant town. So he kept his crushes to himself.
Ashok Kondabolu 11:07
How tolerant is this town of that’s too much, what is tolerant there?
Kareem Rahma 11:12
It’s like he wasn’t getting bullied or death threats and he probably could have.
Ashok Kondabolu 11:17
Tolerant to a degree like, like, we’re let you live your life have fun, but you touch it, we’ll kill you but we’re tolerant rather than if. if I thought you like Willie. Did I like Willie as a person? Yeah, bring him on.
Kareem Rahma 11:37
That’s exactly what it is. Despite all this, Willie was well liked in school. He believes it’s because he was incredibly gifted in pretty much every sport he tried. He came in second in a tennis tournament. He won a few gymnastics meats. He won a baseball championship, and he scored seven of the 12 points against their biggest rival in rugby. His year went like this winter hockey, spring track, volleyball, tennis, summer baseball, fall rugby, but that was all just to stay in shape. For one winter rolled around. And it was time for hockey. And in 1954, when Willie was just 19 years old, he get to play in the Junior A hockey league, a Canadian form league that often funneled talent to the NHL, the coach okay, I’m gonna need help with this pronunciation. The coach for the Quebec Frontenacs.
Hari Kondabolu 12:49
No idea what the hell that is. The frontenacs just make it pretend it’s […]
Kareem Rahma 12:55
That’s right for Quebec correct? The coach for the Quebec frontenac sent a note to Willie personally, he was flattered because that coach was Phil Watson, who played 13 seasons in the NHL for Willie’s favorite team. The Montreal Canadians.
Ashok Kondabolu 13:12
I can’t imagine a young person being flattered, dude. I mean, like, I feel like older people get flattered. But like, can you imagine being like 17 and being like, oh man, I’m flattered. Like I just never could imagine that feeling. I would
Kareem Rahma 13:25
I would just be like, this is sick.
Hari Kondabolu 13:30
Nice piece of flatter.
Kareem Rahma 13:32
Me. Really? Oh, I didn’t realize that people were paying attention to me. Flattered. Also, the Montreal Canadiens like,
Ashok Kondabolu 13:48
And it’s misspelled kind of some bells.
Hari Kondabolu 14:03
Deconstructing the idea of a name.
Kareem Rahma 14:07
I mean, I should not be making fun of anyone because this podcast is literally called FIRST. On that note, back to the story. Quebec is 400 miles from Fredericton. So Willie asked his parents for advice, they warned Willie that because he was Black, he’d need to be extra careful in the world, but especially on the ice. Back then players didn’t wear helmets or face shields. The game was dangerous and up without having a racist out to hurt you. Yeah, they’re just like playing hardcore, like playing boxing.
Hari Kondabolu 14:41
No helmets. Actually. That’s what you remember. We probably don’t put a hockey player named Craig McTavish. Absolutely. No, he was the last fight. McTavish was the last hockey player to not wear a helmet because the rule is like, Okay, everyone who started before this rule, you don’t need to if you don’t want to so but this guy played so long. It was 1994 a lot guys still doesn’t have a helmet on. It just look kind of ridiculous. Like I don’t even mind. I liked that he opted out cracked his head open. He’s the only one who decides not to wear a helmet,
Hari Kondabolu 15:14
Should get him on deep boys. I’m not wearing a condom, are you crazy?
Ashok Kondabolu 15:18
I opted out.
Kareem Rahma 15:22
So his parents gave their blessing for him to make his own decision. And just like that when he was off to Quebec City, Willie was one of the youngest players on the team. But he was also one of the best. He was ranked in the top 10 scorers in the league, and he was still just 19 years old, but he would soon come close to losing it all. During a game in November 1955, this is what happened in Willie’s words. I got the puck and Kent Douglas gets out in the slot and I come around the net and I hit him with the perfect pass. Then I go out in front of the net and I position myself for a deflection. He blasts the slap shot. The puck comes and ricochets off a stick. And as it came, I was cross checked behind the back and it swung me around. As I turned around to see where the puck was. The puck came up and hit me right here. It broke my nose, broke part of my jaw, I was down, I was laying in a pool of my own blood. Willie was taken to the hospital, where a doctor said the puck had completely shattered his retina that he’d never be able to see out of his right eye again, and that his hockey career was over.
Ashok Kondabolu 16:38
The hook destroyed, hit his nose jaw and retina?
Kareem Rahma 17:11
I think it hit him like right here like in the eye socket. Like and it wasn’t so hard, Ken Douglas would hit the puck 100 miles per hour. So Willie packed up his pads, hung up his ice skates for good and quit hockey forever.
Hari Kondabolu 19:08
And invented the personal computer.
Kareem Rahma 19:15
He packed it up, invented the iPhone and changed his name to Steve Jobs. He put on an eyepatch and went right back on the ice. He told himself that now he needed to get good with just one eye or get out. What do you think he chose? I want to say this is like the movie trailer. What do you think he chose?
Ashok Kondabolu 19:37
He got out. This movie is five minutes.
Kareem Rahma 19:44
So Willie recalled in his memoir. I spent that winter in my own private rehab. And as I skated, I began to get a feel for the ice as a one eyed player. I was still fast and I could still play the game. This was a huge relief to me even though I knew that if a puck ever hit me in my left eye, that would be the end. It was a chance I had to take to make my professional dream come true. Nobody knew the extent of the damage except Willie and his doctor, not even his parents knew. And when winter gave way to spring, Willie was also relieved that his baseball skills weren’t affected much without his right eye, which turned into a dilemma.
Ashok Kondabolu 20:24
I was getting a feel for the ice is a one eyed players is an incredible eye.
Hari Kondabolu 20:29
thank god my baseball skills are still intact. You can do other stuff.
Kareem Rahma 20:40
That season in 1956 when he was approached in the locker room by professional baseball scouts, they asked him to try out for the Milwaukee Braves. But the tryouts were in Waycross, Georgia. Willie heard about an all-Black little league team in South Carolina winning the state championship a year earlier, because all 55 White teams forfeited rather than play.
Hari Kondabolu 21:01
That’s a good strategy. Like I couldn’t even play baseball. He was just like, it just you want to join the team. I don’t know how to put just join the team.
Kareem Rahma 21:13
Willie wrote. I knew how Black people were treated in the southern United States. So I said, I don’t think so. They looked surprised. They represented a very good team. I should have been flattered and thrilled by their invitation. I was very leery of doing anything in the state of Georgia, or in the American South in general.
Hari Kondabolu 21:34
That’s a very genteel Canadian. I hear there’s racism in the southern United States and it was not cool with me.
Kareem Rahma 21:41
But his older brother Richard did eventually talk willing to go into the tryout. At the camp, he made friends with some other black players on the team who were shocked about his life in Canada, where almost all of his friends were White. Willie didn’t make the team The Braves told him he needed more seasoning. I’m using air quotes, but he felt relieved. He was with his Black teammates when they were kicked out of a diner and he had his fill of dirty looks. So when he made it back to Fredriksson, he felt more sure than ever, that his future was in hockey. That same summer Willie would get his shot when coach for the Quebec aces a professional minor pro team and offered him a $4,000 contract for a year and that made a huge difference for him and his family. He literally bought them a house. He hadn’t won a Stanley Cup, but he recalls this moment as one of the proudest moments in his hockey career. Willie in his new coach […] I don’t know if he’s because of his first name […]. Sounds Scottish? Well, he’s famous for punching out his own trainer after he was tripped and hit his head on the ice and NHL. No, no, no, no, not, cool nickname. They got along great. And that chemistry translated onto the eyes perfectly […] told Willie to take off the brakes and go for it and he scored 20 goals and had 12 assists. They finished in first place and the ACES won the Duke of Edinburgh trophy crowning them champions for all the minor pro leagues. They were the best team outside of the NHL, and Willie did it all with one eye. But with higher stakes on the ice came higher stakes off the ice and sometimes spit on Willie or through drinks. During one game Willie heard the crowd chanting the N word in French. At the time, there was no glass separating the fans from the penalty box. So when Willie was called for a foul and sitting in the box, a fan approached him from behind. When the fan got too close, Willie turned and hit him with a fucking hook. Send them flying backwards. This is what happened next. They were screaming for blood and some of them started to climb down toward me in the penalty box. But my teammates came to the rescue and soon we had a real brawl with guys duking it out all over the ice and my teammates trying to get me out of the box. I wasn’t about to let a bunch of stupid ignorant people chase me out of pro hockey. I was going to show everyone that I could play with the best and I was just getting started. After one season in the minor pros. Willie got a letter inviting him to the Boston Bruins training camp. He was about to get a real shot at the NHL. He wasn’t hazed for being a newbie, let alone for being black. But Willie felt the new pace almost immediately. He was used to being the quickest guy on the ice, but now other players could keep up. He played a few exhibition games and Willie was here the same line he heard at baseball camp. He needed more seasoning. But the next season Willie was called up by another team in Massachusetts, the Springfield Indians, one of their players was injured.
Ashok Kondabolu 24:53
I have to say in when I was in high school freshman 1989-2000 It was very popular for South Asians to buy Cleveland Indians jerseys. But I wear the all silver at Cleveland Indians limited edition.
Hari Kondabolu 25:11
Wish we did it with the Cleveland Browns.
Kareem Rahma 25:17
One of their players was injured and they needed an emergency replacement right away. They didn’t know Willie was also injured. You know the eye thing, nobody knew, but this was a chance to play in the AHL the American Hockey League which directly fed talent into the NHL. If Willie was going to get another shot at the NHL, this was the way the six games Willie played there. He called hockey hell, their coach Eddie Shore, a legendary Boston Bruins defenseman was quite the hassle. In Willie’s words. Some of the things short did were bonkers. He’d act as a chiropractor, even though he wasn’t and so we would end up injuring players He treated he’d make us practice in the dark to save electricity. He’d open a training camp by ordering players to tap dance in the hotel lobby or do ballet steps on ice. And when the players weren’t in the lineup, he’d make them work the concessions popping popcorn, blowing up balloons or selling program.
Hari Kondabolu 26:13
Until the reality show showed up. I was gonna be in Hawaii.
Kareem Rahma 26:22
I feel like there’s a lot of movies where it’s like. Okay, back to it. Willie sat on the bench for five games straight and then the sixth game in the third and final period he was finally put in. He was so pissed for not playing that he rushed out after the puck and immediately tripped on a piece of debris. Eddie believed that Willie didn’t know how to skate at all pulled him from the game and the next morning, told Willie he was going back to Quebec. But you wouldn’t stay in Quebec long. In 1958, the Boston Bruins called again, one of the Fords got the flu and they needed a replacement for a back to back series against the Montreal Canadiens Willie’s favorite team. He’d again be asked to fill in for another injured player, even though he himself was secretly injured. So Willie’s 22 years old, he’s been playing hockey for nearly 20 years, he’s had a life changing injury that puts him at a massive disadvantage. He’s been hiding it from everyone. And as he’s lacing up his skates.
Ashok Kondabolu 27:24
He slips on a banana.
Kareem Rahma 27:29
He makes history, it was official Willie had become the first black player in the NHL. This is we’re supposed to celebrate. Well, really took the wind out of that was at the end of the story. That banana peel joke. Willie recalled the moment this way. There was no mention in the news media that I was going to do something historic when I stepped out onto the ice wasn’t the first thing in my mind either. To be honest, I was now an NHL player who happened to be Black.
Hari Kondabolu 28:12
I wonder if like the other players though, on the other team not knowing like because I’ve never seen a Black guy on the ice at that point. Like what? Like your time sure. Yeah, it was it had somebody like wake up with a facial reaction. What is what is what’s going on?
Kareem Rahma 28:27
They’re like, be cool, be cool. Cool, be cool. There’s a Black guy. He’s looks really cool too. After the game reporter asked Willie how it felt to play for the Boston Bruins. He said it was the greatest thrill of his life. Neither of them mentioned that he was Black. But history would be recorded by the New York Times that printed. O’ree will be the first Negro to play in a national hockey league game. Canada’s biggest newspaper reported too. So the story read, most hockey observers point out that the only reason a color line existed is the fact that there hasn’t been a negro player qualified to make the National Hockey League when he was like, What? No, he thought a bunch of his Black teammates in the minors had what it took to perform in the NHL, but because of the limited spots, it wasn’t fair to say they didn’t possess the talent.
Ashok Kondabolu 29:25
Okay, if you’re qualified for it, you get the job. That’s all it is.
Kareem Rahma 29:31
We already have a show with an Asian guy.
Hari Kondabolu 29:34
That was always the thing with comedy writers rooms whenever they’re like, we’re just looking for qualified people. And so the greatest comedians of all time people seem to be in agreement are Black yet you’re saying somehow that is possible. But the writing part. They just, they can’t, they write it down the words.
Kareem Rahma 29:55
Or we already have a Black guy in the room, right? Oh, imagine if it is like Oh, We already have enough White dudes in the room so.
Ashok Kondabolu 30:03
I can’t wait to say that.
Kareem Rahma 30:05
So after making history during his short two games stint, Willie went back to Canada to pick back up his minor pro career. The following year in 1960, he walked up to a lemonade stand set up by two young boys, one recognized him and called out yo, that’s Willie O’Ree he plays for the Boston Bruins. Willie thought that this was an omen because just after that, he got another call from the manager of the Boston Bruins simply asking him to get down to Boston, and to bring your skates.
Kareem Rahma 32:07
That lemonaid story seems unnecessary. What was that?
Kareem Rahma 32:15
It’s the omen, a kid Kids said what up anyway, Willie. In this podcast, there needs to be like kids setting up a lemonade stand. You’re gonna hear like, you’re, you know what? Let’s voice the characters. So who wants to be the kid? I’ll be the kid. He walked up to a lemonade stand set up by two young boys. One recognize them and called out. Hey, that’s Willie. He played for the Boston Bruins.
Ashok Kondabolu 32:58
I did not think that was gonna be worth it. But that was good.
Hari Kondabolu 33:00
For some reason. I decided to use Jean Stapleton voice for all of the family.
Kareem Rahma 33:08
I didn’t know we had voice guys in here. Just do the rest of them get Star Wars like that this was an omen. But he got another call from the manager. That’s like a New York Star Wars character. Alright, so he got call from the manager of the Boston Bruins simply asking him to get down to Boston and to bring your skates.
Hari Kondabolu 33:42
Bring your skates, they don’t have skates?
Kareem Rahma 33:51
The Bruins offered him a $9,000 contract twice what he was paid in the Canadian minors. So he was back in the NHL and not just for a stint.
Ashok Kondabolu 34:00
He definitely was making way less than the White players on the team.
Kareem Rahma 34:03
That’s probably right. Back on the Bruins as a full time player Willie wasn’t finding the success he dreamed up he ended most of the games scoreless he’d often skate to fast and lose track of the puck. But ahead of an important game in 1961 against the Canadiens, still the top team in the league. Willie got some advice from one of his teammates. Willie, you’re shooting too high. You have to keep your shots low to be effective. And it paid off instantly. In Willie’s words, halfway through the third period, we had a two to one lead. Both teams had a man in the penalty box so there was quite a bit more space on the ice. Suddenly, I was all alone in front and I was about to shoot high out of habit when I heard Bronco Horvath words in my head. So instead, when I heard Bronco […] words in my head, so instead I let them puck rip along the eyes. That sweet red light that signals a goal flash and nearly 14,000 people in Boston Garden were standing and cheering for me. I had finally scored my first NHL goal on the very first day of a new year.
Hari Kondabolu 35:17
Seems like pretty basic advice that he should have learned, I was thinking really you got to be good at hockey.
Hari Kondabolu 35:24
You see where you’re shooting? The net is below. You got to shoot. Well, look, you better know what he says.
Kareem Rahma 35:36
These names are great. […] that other guy. So when he dove into the net to grab his momento, he got a two minute standing ovation. The coach later told him it was the longest Ovation he’d ever heard in 25 years being around the Bruins. They were cheering for history. 1961 was also the year the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in the American South. And the interviewer asked Willie what he thought about it, but he opted to give them the hockey answer. That’s air quotes. As in giving a facade of an answer and keeping his mind guarded. He wrote in his memoir, if I tell them I’ve got a sore rib, they’re going to hit me every chance they get. So he told the interviewer he experienced no troubles besides just a few years, but that every hockey player gets that. But Willie was protecting his rib. He’d experienced hate on the road a lot in America. In his words. There wasn’t a game in my first NHL season when an ugly racial remark wasn’t directed at me. I’ve said that I let racism go in one ear and out the other. But I heard it all right. Fans yelled. How come you’re not picking caught? One game in Chicago got crazy after an opposing player called him the N word. He first told the rep who told Willie, what do you want me to do about it? The player again called Willie the N word. Then used to stick to bud end Willie in the mouth. About end is when you use the back of the stick to jab another player. It’s a very dirty and illegal move.
Kareem Rahma 35:36
You don’t get kicked out of the game?
Kareem Rahma 37:21
I mean, I guess if the refs aren’t like fucking crooked. The blown knocked out Willie’s two front teeth split his lip and broke his nose. Willie bled but didn’t fall. The Chicago player then called them the N word again. Here’s what happened next is a Willie’s words. He tried to high stick me, but by that point, I’d had enough. I ducked under and smacked him over the head, my stick. I cut him pretty good. It took 14 or 15 stitches to close them off. Blood was now flowing from my mouth and his head, but he wasn’t ready to quit. I knew I couldn’t beat him in a fist fight because of the size. So I pulled him in close to make sure he couldn’t punch me. Meanwhile, both benches had cleared and everyone was fighting. After the fight was broken up. Willie was taken to the locker room and patched up. They told him he couldn’t go back out because there was someone that might try to kill him. They locked him in the Boston dressing room. And after the game, the police marched them to their bus.
Hari Kondabolu 38:17
Oh, thank God the Boston Police was there. The new kid better not go to school with my kid in 10 years.
Kareem Rahma 38:28
The newspapers reported later that it was just a crazy fight. He kept the fact that it was a racist attack to himself. He’d never told his parents because he didn’t want them to worry. Willie played 43 games for the Bruins that year, he scored four goals and had 10 assists with one eye.
Ashok Kondabolu 38:48
Is that good. I don’t know what that means.
Kareem Rahma 39:07
Willie was traded to the Montreal Canadiens, who obviously didn’t need. Willie thinks is because they found out about his blind died. The Canadiens gave Willie’s contract to their farm team and the minor pros and Willie and his new team would win the championships. But it wasn’t the NHL. Willie would spend the rest of his career bouncing between minor pro teams including one out west and Los Angeles, The LA Blades. He liked la a lot. It’s where he met Bernadine […], a Black hockey fan. They got married and had two kids.
Ashok Kondabolu 39:36
Wait, hold on a second. A black hockey fan meaning she was Black. And she liked hockey or only like the Black hockey. Those are very different things.
Hari Kondabolu 39:52
Favorite players, Willie O’Ree.
Kareem Rahma 39:56
The fan club back then. In 1962, Willie was invited to an NAACP luncheon in Jackie Robinson’s honor. He walked over to shake Robinson’s hand before he could introduce himself, Jackie went. Willie O’Ree, aren’t you a Black hockey player? I met you back in Brooklyn. And you told me you’re going to be a hockey player. And so you are. This was 13 years after they first met when Willie was a teenager.
Ashok Kondabolu 40:36
Feel like kinda call it bullshit. It sounds really made up.
Hari Kondabolu 40:45
You know, I think he did remember because that’s such a wild thing to say. It’s like if somebody tells you like, you know, they’re going to do some unbelievable.
Kareem Rahma 41:13
This was 13 years after they first met when Willie was a teenager. It was a really amazing moment that seemed to validate Willie more than any championship price could. And so that is the story of Willie O’Ree in 1979. After playing 21 seasons playing hockey and one in the NHL with one eye. Willie retired and his professional playing years were over, but he’d stay close to the sport in 1998. At age 63, he would come back to the NHL as their diversity ambassador, a position he still holds to this day. Willie now travels the country to bring hockey to the front door of folks. Hockey wasn’t otherwise reaching. He started the hockey as for everyone Initiative, where he got to work with 85,000 children and help them work on their hockey skills. Willie was the first and last Black hockey player of that decade. It took until 1974 for the NHL to welcome the second black player Mike Marston but there are now over two dozen Black players in the NHL. Not a huge number but more than zero. Willie sense been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame Canada Sports Hall of Fame and was honored with an order of New Brunswick and an Order of Canada top honorifics in the country. He was also honored in Boston in 2018 for the 60th anniversary of breaking the hockey color line. He dropped the ceremonial first puck ahead of Boston’s game with Montreal, who remains their main rival to this day. The Bruins also wore commemorative Willie O’Ree patches on their jerseys and during a press conference dedicating a new street hockey rink in Willie’s honor. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said Willie deserves to be in the same historical category as Robinson and President Barack Obama.
Ashok Kondabolu 43:01
No offense to Willie O’Ree but down now. That’s cool and stuff. But you’re not Jackie Robinson, you’re not Brock. Obama. You played one season?
Kareem Rahma 43:15
All right. You know, you’re gonna explain to the mayor, Marty Walsh.
Hari Kondabolu 43:19
Wow, that is ridiculous. If you put him in the same sentence, but like, what are you talking about?
Kareem Rahma 43:30
Maybe he was just trying to be nice. I mean, really, this goes on his special day. You know? Wayne Simmons, a Black NHL player who joined the NHL in 2008 said for every single kid who was ever told to stick to basketball. Willie was like the first man on the moon. He wasn’t just a hockey player. He was an astronaut. And that, my friends is the story of Willie O’Ree, the first black NHL player.
Ashok Kondabolu 44:03
That is a good
Kareem Rahma 44:06
Thank you fellas for joining.
Hari Kondabolu 44:08
My two big takeaways are the delusional perseverance is a big thing that I relate to. And the fact that he only really did one good thing that one season the AHL, and I’ve always been like before I die if I could do one good thing. That’s enough. I’m into that.
Kareem Rahma 44:25
I’m into one good thing.
Hari Kondabolu 44:27
Can you edit out any of the mentions of his one eye? Because you mentioned it a lot.
Kareem Rahma 44:34
I think we’ll set it up.
Hari Kondabolu 44:35
I’m sure if he heard this. I’m like how yeah, all right. I got it. I got it. I know.
Kareem Rahma 44:42
All right. I like that. You guys have takeaways. Amazing pod. Thank you guys so much. Appreciate you and we’ll see you next time.
Kareem Rahma 44:58
Thank you, listeners for joining us, laughing with us, crying with us, learning with us and helping make this show possible. wouldn’t be possible without comedians, wouldn’t be possible without the audience and most importantly wouldn’t be possible without these subjects who broke down racial barriers, push the limits, and who changed the definition of what it means to be first. I’m Kareem Rahma, your host and in the words of that guy from The Truman Show. Good morning. And in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night.
FIRST is produced by some friends and salts. Ad sales and distribution by Lemonada Media. The show is created and hosted by Kareem Rahma. Executive producers for some friends are Kareem Rahma, Andrew […], researched by […], original audio production music and sound design by Salt. Executive producers for Salt are […] salts Head of Production […], Salt’s head of engineering, […], Salt’s head of post-production Robert Adler’s, Production Manager Alice […], post-production coordinator […], recording engineer Aaron Kennedy, edited and sound designed by […] Harris, dialogue supervision by Noah Kowalski. Additional sound design and music supervision by […], mixed by Ben O’Neil. Original music and composition by […] additional Music courtesy of extreme music recorded at Salt Studios in Los Angeles and the cutting room in New York City.