One of my most vivid childhood memories was meeting Jackie Robinson in 1949, just two years after he broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. I was 14 years old, and our baseball team came to New York City as a reward for winning a championship.
After my turn to meet Jackie, he turned to the next kid, but I wanted to say one more thing: “I’m a baseball player, but what I really love is hockey.” He turned around, and with a smile, said, “Oh? I didn’t know there were any black kids playing hockey.”
That meeting — and the sentiment one of my idols shared with me — was a fairly typical reaction for me as I started out on what would become an amazing journey.
I often find myself talking about being the first black player in the NHL and breaking the color barrier in 1958. People tend to ask me about the challenges I faced. They say, “Was it hard being the only one?”
And to be honest, it wasn’t exactly easy. Racism was evident for me, the taunts in the penalty box and threats were real. But rather than allowing these obstacles to slow me down, I used them as motivation to prove that I belonged on the ice among the greatest hockey players in the world.
Obviously, there weren’t many of us back then. That’s part of the reason I made it my life’s calling to ensure the game of hockey became more inclusive and more welcoming for everyone regardless of the color of their skin, their gender or where they come from.
Since 1998, I’ve been the NHL’s diversity ambassador. My singular focus has been to make the sport more welcoming through the league’s diversity outreach, now called Hockey is for Everyone.
I’ve built and supported more than 30 non-profit youth hockey programs in North America focused on providing opportunities for local disadvantaged and marginalized populations. In that time, I’ve visited 500 schools, and Hockey is for Everyone has reached 120,000 kids, teaching them hockey along with important life lessons.
No one can argue with the results. I am proud to say there are far more of us now at the highest levels of the game — with even more to come.
P.K. Subban is the game’s most dynamic defenseman — at least in my opinion — and he’s a crossover star in Nashville. Seth Jones is an all-star in Columbus — not to mention someone who I can’t take my eye off when he’s on the ice.
And playing right now at Fort Dupont, Washington D.C.’s rink, and home to the nation’s oldest minority hockey program, the Fort Dupont Cannons, could be the next great NHL star.
I’m proud to be part of the NHL’s Black History Month celebration, including the league’s mobile black history museum, which is making its final stop in Washington this week. It displays the jersey I wore when I made my debut as the first black NHL player in 1958.
Since starting my work with the league’s outreach campaign two decades ago, I’ve seen a great improvement in how black players have been treated. And we’ve come an even longer way from the days when I played.
And as the NHL sets the tone for pro, college, high school and youth hockey that people of color are welcome, our ranks will continue to grow.
Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s diversity ambassador who broke the NHL color barrier in 1958 with the Boston Bruins, was inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame last year.