For two reasons I’ve always remembered a specific date 60 years ago — Jan. 18, 1958 to be specific.
That day I rectified an earlier mistake by saying goodbye to my engineering studies at St. Francis Xavier University and heading home to New Glasgow, a departure that would point me in the right direction and a lifetime in the newspaper business.
That evening my thoughts focused on a National Hockey League game involving the Boston Bruins when Willie O’Ree of Fredericton played his first NHL game, becoming the first black to appear on an NHL roster.
The change in my life’s course may be easy to understand, but why that personal attention to the Boston Game?
There’s a simple explanation.
O’Ree was making history similar to what Jackie Robinson had done in Major League Baseball when he wore a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform for the first time.
And, for hockey fans like myself in Pictou County, we had seen O’Ree in action at Stellarton Memorial Rink just four years earlier.
First, though, I’ll mention why Willie is in our thoughts — in case you’ve been vacationing on a different planet.
His announced induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame was something we had been anticipating, something that was well overdue.
Again, there’s an explanation.
The induction process is somewhat like that used by the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame. A potential inductee must be nominated by someone before the selection committee makes a decision. After a period of time, the nominated person must be re-nominated to be considered further.
Finally, O’Ree got the nod. When he received the official phone call, he admitted he had “tears in my eyes.”
As Maritimers, we share in his long-overdue honour. Earlier awards have included admittance into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame.
So how did he come to play in Stellarton?
That was in 1953-54 when Willie’s hometown Fredericton Capitals and the Stellarton Royals met in the finals for the Maritime senior championship.
Since that was long ago, a review of the road to the Fredericton-Stellarton match-up is probably warranted.
Back then, I was still in high school, but my father and I had attended many of Stellarton’s home games since the rink opened in 1947.
The 1953-54 Royals were in the APC Hockey League with the Trenton Scotias, Pictou Maripacs, Truro Bearcats and St. Francis Xavier X-Men.
That was the season marred by the New Year’s Night death of Stellarton goaltender Gummie Gilfoy, killed in a highway accident while driving to the game.
The tragedy hit the local hockey community hard, but playing coach, Leo Fahey soon found a good replacement in veteran Greg Floyd.
The Royals continued getting their share of victories but, during the second half of the schedule, they slipped a notch and finished behind the Bearcats.
The roster had many talented players, including Fahey, who was still in peak form. Others were Nelson Wilson, Jim MacDonald, Danny Dorrington, Geno Scatallone, Porgy MacDougall, Jack MacKenzie, Bill Stewart, Amie Baudoux and Shorty Aikens.
Stellarton’s journey to the APC title included a best-of-seven quarter-final sweep against Trenton, a surprising best-of-five semi-final romp over Truro, and a tough 4-3 games triumph against the Xaverians.
That was the beginning.
They faced the Windsor Maple Leafs, Valley Senior League winners, in a best-of-seven round to determine a Nova Scotia champion. After splitting two home games, the Royals took three straight in Windsor to make quick work of the Leafs.
Then came Fredericton and O’Ree.
The Royals were booked for a best-of-seven showdown with the Capitals, the powerful New Brunswick champions, for the Maritime title.
Fredericton came to town heralded as a real powerhouse, some New Brunswick journalists claiming Stellarton didn’t have a hope.
O’Ree was just 18, playing alongside players almost twice his age. He was considered a future pro even then. Players didn’t wear helmets in those times, so it was easy to find the youngster in the pre-game warm-up. Like it was in those days, a lot of attention was focused on the colour of his skin.
I remember being there for the opener, packed into the seats like sardines. Before the night ended, there was more than an impressive O’Ree on our minds.
First of all, the Royals played better than normal and got major results — an eye-opening 6-4 win. O’Ree looked great despite being on the losing side.
What fans including myself – remembered most about that game was the wild brawl that broke out in the third period. Most of the players got involved, as did many spectators. The fighting didn’t die down until the rink management played the national anthem over the public address system.
I can assure you it wasn’t O’Ree that fans were talking about as they left the arena and headed for home.
Things changed after that.
With their publicized star taking over the limelight, the New Brunswickers got everything their way for the remainder of the series. The Capitals won by two goals in Stellarton, then added 15-4, 5-2 and 8-0 wins back home.
The Capitals had won the championship they were expected to win. As for the Royals, they never again won anything in senior hockey.
And Willie O’Ree?
He had scored 15 goals and 10 assists in Fredericton’s 25 playoff matches. He was obviously on his way to major junior and professional hockey after that.
He would play only 45 games in his NHL career, but he had a lot of great achievements in the minor pros. He was a good player despite his lack of size.
More important than that, as media outlets have been reporting, his “true legacy has been the work he continues to do” in his role as diversity ambassador and the Hockey for Everyone program aimed at getting more black children into the game.
A true hall of fame inductee — on and off the ice.