I’m sure hockey fans across the Maritimes were delighted when Fredericton native Willie O’Ree was inducted recently into the builders category in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s the frosting on the cake for his historic and ground-breaking career in professional hockey.
Fans in Pictou County got a chance to see him in action a long time ago — 65 years ago to be exact. That’s when he played in the county with the 1953-54 Fredericton Capitals against the Stellarton Royals with the Maritime senior championship on the line.
O’Ree was inspired by his father’s advice when he was a youngster. The story came out in a Hockey Night in Canada interview a couple nights before the induction ceremonies. His dad told him, “Find a job you like and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Willie’s response: “That’s been true.”
He followed the advice through 22 years of pro hockey, a career that resembled what Jackie Robinson had done for baseball beginning in 1947. Willie wasn’t a big star like Robinson, but he turned his hockey opportunities into a life-long journey in the sport.
But let’s recall the two games Fredericton and Stellarton played that winter at Stellarton Memorial Rink.
Back then — before he was hailed as a black hockey pioneer — he got attention as one of the stars of the very strong New Brunswick championship club. He was only 19 years old at that time.
For those of us old enough to have attended those games, the clearest memories weren’t about the scores or which team won, but of a wild night in the series opener. It’s often been repeated that the brawl that broke out in the first contest turned the rest of the series in Fredericton’s favour.
Even after all these years, I still consider that “fight night” as one of the wildest brawls I ever witnessed in senior hockey.
First, though, let me set the stage.
The Royals were one of five teams in the APC Senior Hockey League that particular winter, the others being the Pictou Maripacs, Trenton Scotias, Truro Bearcats and St. Francis Xavier X-Men.
That was the winter the Royals lost their goalie when Gummie Gilfoy was killed in an accident on his way to a game in Stellarton. Greg Floyd was the replacement and he brought the team back into the race, just two games behind Truro.
Those Royals included playing coach Leo Fahey, Nelson Wilson, Danny Dorrington, Jimmy MacDonald, Arnie Baudoux, Shorty Aikens, Geno Scattalone, Danny Bisson, Ken McOnie, Dave Hines, Bill Dixon and Porgy MacDougall. A key was the presence of high scoring imports Jack MacKenzie and Bill Stewart.
The Royals faced the first-place Bearcats in the league semi-finals and, wow, what a job they did. They beat Truro three consecutive times. That put Stellarton against St. FX for the title. The Royals took that best-of-seven 4-2 to become league champions. That was followed by Stellarton’s 4-1 games verdict against the Valley league champion Windsor Maple Leafs for the provincial crown.
Then O’Ree and his Fredericton mates arrived to begin a best-of-seven showdown with the Royals.
As I wrote years ago, the first game produced “life-time memories” for those who packed Memorial Rink to the rafters.
For two periods plus, it was all Stellarton as the locals skated towards what would be an 8-4 victory, thanks to a four-goal night from Stewart.
The third period was like a war.
Hockey fans, especially those from that era, were familiar with bench-clearing brawls. They occurred frequently in those days.
That night, when trouble began, both benches emptied. This time, though, many fans poured onto the ice and into battle, as well. It was ugly.
How did officials and police finally get things settled? Only when rink attendants played O Canada on the public address system. It actually stopped the fighting. I often wonder if the national anthem would have any effect nowadays.
There was no clear winner in the fisticuffs department that evening. But as the series progressed, it was quite obvious there was no fight left in the Royals. Stellarton may have taken the opener on the scoreboard, but that was it. They didn’t come close after that.
Game two, also in Stellarton, was won 5-3 by the New Brunswickers. The Royals wouldn’t get a sniff in Fredericton, getting outclassed in the three matches by lopsided scores of 15-4, 6-2 and 8-0. Grade two math summed up the three outings by a 29-6 margin.
Ironically, the APC and Nova Scotia titles were the last ever won by a Stellarton team in senior competition.
For Willie O’Ree, whose Capitals lost their opening Allan Cup series in straight games against the Quebec champion Matane Red Rocks, that season turned out to be the opening chapter of a 22-year career in the pros.
Four years after his Stellarton appearances, O’Ree made his National Hockey League debut with the Boston Bruins. His 1957-58 stay would amount to only two games. But, in 1960-61, he would appear in a Boston uniform 43 more times.
A black hockey player had reached the NHL for the first time.
There are something like three dozen blacks in the league now, but that was the breakthrough, and it was achieved by a Maritimer.
Like Robinson’s arrival in major league baseball, it wasn’t all pleasant times for O’Ree.
He heard the N-word many times, but never fought because of racial slurs. He didn’t fight when opponents speared him, butt-ended him or slashed him unmercifully. As he told one reporter recently, if he had responded, “I would have spent every game in the penalty box.”
He was above that.
When Willie’s playing days were over, he was employed with the NHL, primarily working with youth. That was followed by his receiving the Order of Canada. You can’t do much better than that.
As for the advice Willie got from his father, hockey was never work.