Willie: A Fredericton hero

(Jared Durelle/AQ)

In 1958, when Willie O’Ree was 22, he achieved his childhood dream of being a National Hockey League player. O’Ree, now 83, was the first black player in the NHL.

O’Ree was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018. His story was told again at the screening of the documentary Willie at the University of New Brunswick’s Currie Center. Around 470 were in attendance. The event started with a land acknowledgement, recognition of Fredericton MP Matt DeCourcey and the entrance of O’Ree himself.

Focusing on his formative years in Fredericton, the documentary captured key moments before O’Ree’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. One segment told the story of his return to Fredericton to support three brothers who had been racially targeted on the ice.

From losing the function of his right eye to the constant harassment on and off the ice, O’Ree played 45 games in the NHL and continued to work with the NHL through their diversity programs. O’Ree also created the all-star weekend program, a hockey training camp for kids.

Other highlights in the documentary included O’Ree’s return to Canada and Fredericton. This offered O’Ree an opportunity to look back to how his family was able to escape slavery and come to New Brunswick.

There were multiple rounds of applause for O’Ree before the credits rolled, each one resulting in a standing ovation.

The panel for questions and answers at the end of the screening involved O’Ree, the film’s director Laurence Mathieu-Leger and the film’s producer, Bryant McBride.

McBride used the panel as a moment to speak against what he said is an increasingly hostile United States. He said a documentary like his could defuse some of the hostility.

This was Mathieu-Leger’s directorial debut. She focused on how O’Ree had inspired players to this day.

O’Ree has also been honoured in his current home of San Diego, Calif., as well Boston, Mass., Springfield, Mass. and received the Order of Canada, a national honour.