Born in Fredricton, New Brunswick, Canada in 1935, Willie was the youngest of 13 children. He first learned to skate at the age of 3 and started playing hockey when he was 5. He was also a great baseball player and was once offered a contract by the Milwaukee Brewers.
Willie loved hockey and played on many junior teams before being drafted by the Boston Bruins in 1958. Although he only played a few times before being sent to the minor leagues for 2 years, he returned to Boston in 1961 and played more than 40 games.
Willie O’Ree was not a popular player on the ice. Because there were no black athletes in the NHL, he was faced with discrimination every day. Opposing players fought him just because he was black. Fans threw drinks at him and shouted horrible things. When asked how he got through it, Willie answered, "It didn't bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn't accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine."
Racial discrimination was not the only thing Willie had to deal with. Before he played in the NHL he was hit by a puck and lost the sight in one eye. He never told anyone, and kept the secret of his one-eyed blindness until after his career ended.
Willie O'Ree is sometimes compared to Jackie Robinson. But unlike baseball, where Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier cleared a path for thousands of black ballplayers to follow, no other black athlete played in the NHL until 1974, 16 long years after O'Ree.
In 1998, Willie O’Ree joined the NHL again, this time as the leader of a program to introduce children of different backgrounds to the game of hockey.
Willie O'Ree, now living in California, was honored in Boston in 2008 to mark the 50th anniversary of his 1958 start in the NHL. In 2010 he received the Order of Canada, and in 2018 he became the first black player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.