Jackie Robinson started his first game for the Dodgers 71 years ago, in 1947. That is an accomplishment that we should never — that we can never — forget. Did it mark the end of racism? Not by a long shot. Did it change the fundamental facts of life in America in the 40’s? No. But it did mark a step down the right road…a very, very important step.
As much as I admire the courage and ability of Jackie Robinson, however, I’m not a baseball guy. I never played it as a kid, I never watch it on TV, and I barely understand the tactics and strategies of the only sport in the world that can rival golf, cricket and curling for sheer, mind-numbing boredom.
Nope, I’m not a baseball guy…I’m a hockey guy.
Now, unlike baseball, hockey is…er…pretty freaking white. That being said, there is an increasing presence of minorities in both the amateur and professional ranks. Dustin Byfuglien is a stud, I’ve loved Wayne Simmons all the way back to his time with the Kings, and PK Subban is a freaking machine (and one of those rarities in hockey: the player you can and should build your franchise around)…just names off the top of my head of players I admire. There are currently several dozen minorities in the NHL, let alone those in the minors. That’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the thousand or so who will play in the NHL in any given season, but every year those numbers grow. Especially in youth and junior hockey, those numbers are growing. And that matters, it matters a great deal.
But the story that doesn’t get told often enough is the man who started it all: Willie O’Ree.
Willie O’Ree suited up as the NHL’s first black player in 1958. The first black player in one of the whitest sports in history (I’m looking at you, golf and auto racing, as the leading villains on that ignominious list of the lily-white). But the best part is that O’Ree is still with us, and is still active in the community. He still speaks to players — to kids and adults alike — and he is still working and fighting to open doors and create opportunities. He is still a source of inspiration and respect. He is still making a difference.
But he’s not in the Hall of Fame.
Wait…what the fuck?
He’s not in the Hall?
Are you kidding me?!
How the hell is Willie O’Ree not in the hockey Hall of Fame?!
Don’t get me wrong, I love the greats…I love Gretzky and Howe and Orr and a list too long to get into, but O’Ree didn’t just play, he changed the sport. He didn’t change the style of play like Gretzky, nor did he redefine a position like Orr…no, he did far more. He opened the door for every black and brown kid with dreams of playing. He opened the door for players like Subban and Iginla and Fuhr and Carter and Byfuglien and the rest of the greats that came after him.
But he’s not in the Hall.
He is eligible for nomination this year (again), in the Builders category. Now, there is a limit to the number of players who can even be nominated as candidates, and he is up against guys like Brodeur and St Louis and a host of others, but all that is needed is ONE member of the selection committee to champion him as a nominee.
Imagine if Jackie Robinson were not in the baseball Hall of Fame…
If you are a hockey fan at all, or a fan of recognizing the folks who truly mattered, do me a favor and let those folks with a say in the matter know that Willie O’Ree doesn’t just belong in the hockey Hall of Fame, he is the very definition of an all-time great.