CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 13. . . .November 30, 2012
Willie O'Ree: The Story of the First Black Player in the NHL. (Recordbooks).
Toronto, ON: James Lorimer, 2012.
140 pp., pbk., hc. & Ebook, $9.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.), $8.95 (Ebook).
ISBN 978-1-4594-0195-2 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4594-0196-9 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-4594-0197-6 (Ebook).
O'Ree, Willie, 1935- -Juvenile literature.
Black Canadian hockey players-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Hockey players-Canada-Biography-Juvenile literature.
National Hockey League-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Grades 6-8 / Ages 11-13.
Review by Thomas F. Chambers.
Willie tried out for his school hockey team. One day he gave a clean check to his coach's son. The hit broke the young man's collarbone. The coach kicked Willie off the team.
That didn't stop Willie. He went on to play in the New Brunswick Hockey League for the Fredericton Junior Capitals, and then for the Capitals in the senior league. Guess who wanted Willie back after his success with the Capitals? When Willie's high-school coach contacted Willie to come back to the team, Willie turned him down.
All the while Willie played hockey, racism was silent, but it still existed. There were places in town that he couldn't go. There may not have been any signs posted, but it was an unspoken rule. He didn't let it bother him….until he needed a haircut.
Willie O'Ree was a gifted black athlete who faced considerable prejudice in his quest to play in the National Hockey League. His story is one of frustration but also, ultimately, one of success. Will O'Ree begins long before O'Ree, the first black man to play in the NHL, laced up his skates to play for the Boston Bruins in a game against the Montreal Canadiens on January 18, 1958. O'Ree faced much racial criticism in his career, and his success as a player did not end the racism in hockey. This is the discovery author Nicole Mortillaro uncovered in her research.
Willie O'Ree contains much interesting historical data. In 1894, for example, the first black hockey league, the Colored Hockey League, was formed in Nova Scotia. The names of the teams in this league were unusual. The Dartmouth Jubilees reminded blacks of 1833 when Britain made slavery illegal in the British Empire. The use of the word eureka in the Halifax Eurekas refers to the time when black people first started to believe in God.
In addition to being the first black NHL player, O'Ree also played hockey with only one eye. This reality makes his achievement even more remarkable. In 1954 while playing with the Kitchener-Waterloo Junior Canucks, O'Ree was hit by a slapshot above his right eye. (Players did not wear protective head gear in those days.) While this injury might have ended his hockey career, it only meant another hurdle for O'Ree to jump, and jump he did into the NHL as a Boston Bruin. Because of his bravery and determination in the face of considerable odds, O'Ree, in Mortillaro's portrait of him, is a man of heroic proportions.
Author Nicole Mortillaro has written a number of books on hockey but also in science. These include Hockey Trailblazers and Saturn: Exploring The Mystery of the Ringed Planet. Willie O'Ree is well-researched. She has made Willie O'Ree's story an engrossing one. Her writing style is easy to read and suitable for young readers. They will be intrigued at the struggles O'Ree and major league baseball player Jackie Robinson faced in order to play professional sports with white men. The struggle for racial equality in sport is very well explained.
Willie O'Ree has an Index, Glossary and an Author's Note explaining her mixed heritage and respect for black leaders who helped to make society more tolerant. The book is illustrated with 10 decorative black and white photographs spread throughout the text. Each chapter also has sidebars of relevance to the story. These are very useful. One, for example, discusses the Underground Railroad, the route by which some escaped slaves came from the United States to Canada. The book is suitable for classroom support. As a result of the experience O'Ree faced because of his race, his story lends itself very well to a discussion of racial prejudice and prejudice generally.
Thomas F. Chambers, a retired college teacher and author, lives in North Bay, ON.
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