The NBA is not the only major sport organization that will begin it’s championship finals this week. The National Hockey League also starts it’s finals. One of the major participants is defenseman Pernell-Karl Sylvester Subban, better know as “P.K.”. The two-time all star keeps the tradition going of black players in the finals that probably started with Hall-of-Fame goalie Grant Fuhr who won the Cup in 1983.
For me, when I see stuff like this, I always think…Who was first?
For that answer, we go back to January 18th, 1958. Willie O’Ree was a left winger who came up from the Quebec Aces to replace a injured player for the Boston Bruins in a game against the Montreal Canadians. He became well, you know. While he only played two games that season, he returned in the 1960-1961 season to play 43 more games for his career. He also became the first black player to score a NHL goal, lighting the lamp on New Year’s Day 1961 against Montreal.
What’s more amazing is how he played when he was in the league. During the 1955-56 season in the Ontario league, he was struck in the eye by a puck. Eight weeks later, he lost 95% of the vision in his left eye. Somehow he was able to keep it hidden. “Alf (head coach) may have been informed about my eye but we didn’t discuss it in great detail,” O’Ree said. “He asked if I ever tried right wing. He moved me over there and I didn’t have trouble seeing the puck. If I had moved over to right wing when I was with the Bruins, I might have scored more goals and been more of an asset.”
If you listen to O’Ree, he sounds like any other Canadian kid with dreams of playing pro hockey: “Every chance I had, I was on the ice,” O’Ree recalled. “I even skated to school. My dad squirted the garden hose on the back yard and we had an instant rink. I loved the feel of the wind rushing by as I flew along the ice. I loved the sound of spraying ice chips when I hit the brakes and spun around to charge back the other way. I loved having the puck on my stick and learning how to stickhandle. The speed that I could reach on my skates when I was stickhandling with the puck was like defying gravity.”
Dreams can be so inspirational.
Fast forward to 2016. Winger Joel Ward (who used to play with the Capitals) said that he was inspired by O’Ree to play hockey and his number 22 should be retired like baseball’s Jackie Robinson.
It’s here that I give my annual tribute to the Americans who do their best to keep our shores safe. This year, I’ll keep it simple….Thank you for your service.