For Willie O’Ree, it was love at first sight with the state of California.
It began, of all places, on a chilly Ottawa morning in November 1961, when the 26-year-old O’Ree was summoned by Hull-Ottawa Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock.
“I came into practice one morning, about ten after eight,” O’Ree recalled. “Sam Pollock handed me an envelope, said, ‘We traded you to the Los Angeles Blades. Here’s your plane ticket and expenses. Your plane leaves at 12:50.’”
Going from the Montreal Canadiens’ minor league affiliate to an unaffiliated professional outfit in the Western Hockey League, this felt like a step down for O’Ree, who had shattered the NHL’s color barrier with Boston in 1958 and played 43 games with the Bruins just the season before. But then, the New Brunswick native stepped off the plane.
“I arrived in Los Angeles at 6:30 in the evening and it was 75 degrees. Nice, warm breeze. I said, well, this is kind of nice.”
Almost 60 years later, O’Ree still hasn’t left the Golden State.
After six seasons with the Blades, the speedy winger dubbed “The Fastest Man on Skates” joined the San Diego Gulls in 1967-68. O’Ree would finish the rest of his playing career in San Diego, with one notable exception.
But it wasn’t just the weather that made California so attractive to O’Ree. About that notable exception...
In October 1972, despite piling up 117 goals over his last five seasons with the Gulls, O’Ree was benched.
“I had a good year, a good training camp, but the coach and I had a little misunderstanding. Parker MacDonald, coach and general manager of the New Haven Nighthawks, found out that I wasn’t playing,” O’Ree said. “I knew the American Hockey League was a lot of traveling on buses and cold. I told Parker, I appreciate the offer, but I’ll stay here in San Diego.”
But MacDonald and riding the pine wore O’Ree down, “He called me two or three times, almost begged me to come back. Eventually, I said okay.”
On the scoresheet, the 37-year-old’s time in New Haven was a success, as he potted 21 goals in just 50 contests. He was also a popular player...at home.
On the road, however, O’Ree endured some of the most horrific racism of his career.
“Tidewater, I don’t know if they had seen a black hockey player before,” O’Ree recounted. “When I got down there, not only Tidewater, but other cities, the racial remarks and slurs, fans throwing cotton balls on the ice. One fan threw a black cat on the ice.”
Sadly, the trailblazer guessed this might happen even before he went back East: “I knew that I was going to be faced with racism. I just let it go in one ear and out another.”
But it was a far cry from the WHL cities like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. O’Ree has called his time playing in California the most enjoyable of his career.
“You heard the odd name-calling in some places,” O’Ree said. “But overall, the Western League was a great league.”
When the Nighthawks’ campaign wrapped, O’Ree took the first ticket out of town, joining the Gulls’ playoff push. And he never looked back. Not only did O’Ree finish his playing career in San Diego, that’s where he retired to in 1980.
“I fell in love with San Diego,” O’Ree said. “Weather, the beaches, the ocean, the mountains. I could go out and play golf after practice.”
Over the years, O’Ree managed several local Jack in the Box restaurants and became a security director at the Hotel del Coronado, among other occupations. Finally, in 1994, the NHL called on O’Ree again, anointing him the league’s diversity ambassador. In that capacity, O’Ree has represented the league all over North America, but San Diego remains home.
The 2019 Hockey Hall of Famer is still a fixture of the Southern California hockey scene — just this week, he’s traveled with the NHL Black Hockey History Tour mobile museum through Anaheim and Los Angeles.
At his hotel, the 84-year-old noted, as the California sun beckoned outside: “I just felt so at ease here.”
Black Hockey History Tour Mobile Museum in Bay Area
Speaking of the NHL Black Hockey History Tour, the mobile museum will visit SAP Center on February 29 and Oakland on March 1.
On Saturday, the mobile museum will open at 3:30 PM outside SAP Center, during the San Jose Sharks street rally on Autumn Street.
On Sunday, the museum will open from 11 AM to 4 PM at the Oakland Ice Center on 18th Street.
The museum will feature memorabilia from O’Ree, Mike Grier, Joel Ward and Evander Kane, among others. Co-curator Damon Kwame Mason, also director of black hockey history documentary “Soul On Ice: Past, Present, & Future”, will be accompanying the museum in the Bay Area.
O’Ree and the Sharks have something in common besides the fact that O’Ree once suited up for the semi-pro San Diego Sharks. Both O’Ree and the San Jose Sharks played at the Cow Palace—O’Ree against the WHL’s San Francisco Seals and the Sharks during their first two campaigns.
O’Ree had fond memories of the Cow Palace, even the infamous 25 steps up from the dressing room to the ice.
“If you were in shape, it didn’t bother you,” he laughed. “Good crowd, I think they were averaging around 7,500. The lighting was good. I never experienced a bad sheet of ice all the time we played there.”