The players and circumstances that paved the way for Willie O’Ree to break the NHL’s color barrier 60 years ago
O’Ree knows the story of the league’s first black player could have gone another way
The National Hockey League was the last of the four major American professional sports leagues to admit black players, through no fault of the league, the owners, general managers or coaches. Well, that’s what Len Bramson of The Hockey News wrote on Feb. 1, 1958 — two and a half weeks after Willie O’Ree broke the color barrier with the Boston Bruins.
“The fact that there has never been a Negro in the NHL prior to O’Ree must be blamed on the Negro race itself,” Bramson wrote.
O’Ree scoffed at this idea. Herbert Carnegie. Art Dorrington. Stan Maxwell. John Utendale. Any of these players, O’Ree explained, could have integrated the league before or at the same time that he broke the color barrier on Jan. 18, 1958. So when folks used to tell O’Ree that he was going to be the first black player in big-time hockey, he let it go in one ear and out the other.
Carnegie and Dorrington, who flirted with the league 11 and eight years, respectively, before O’Ree broke through, had also heard those words before, and neither ever made it. Maxwell, a teammate of O’Ree’s in the Boston Bruins’ farm system, and Utendale, signed to the Detroit Red Wings’ farm team in Edmonton, never got called up.
“There were four or five other black players playing at that time, and I don’t know what the real reason was,” O’Ree said. “I think, possibly, they weren’t ready for another black player, or they said that some of the players that went to training camps weren’t good enough.”
The NHL didn’t have to be the last league to integrate. Had the six-team league opted to give equal pay and opportunity to black players, the NHL could have been the first to open its doors.
“There were other players that should’ve been there but weren’t,” said the 82-year-old O’Ree, who is now the NHL’s diversity ambassador. “Stan was just as good a hockey player as I was. He could’ve been the first one to break the color barrier. As I said, we played together for eight years … we just felt good about one another. We knew what we could do on the ice. When we played together, we made things happen, we didn’t look for things to happen.”
O’Ree cited Carnegie as having the best chance to break the mold, and had Carnegie integrated the game, the story would be turned on its head.
Bruins coach Milt Schmidt brought O’Ree up to shake up the sluggish Bruins. The team had optioned several of its players to its respective farm teams, and Leo Labine came down with the cold that opened the door for O’Ree to play. The left winger didn’t score in his debut, and the coverage of the Jan. 18, 1958, game at the Montreal Forum was less about O’Ree integrating the sport and more about the lowly Bruins defeating the perennial power Montreal Canadiens, 3-0.
The Washington Post‘s Shirley Povich had a line about the Fredricton, New Brunswick, native in his roundup, while The New York Times, Chicago Daily Tribune, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and others alternated between using the few graphs that The Associated Press or United Press provided about “Billy” O’Ree’s “accomplishment.” The Chicago Defender had the most thorough story, as did other black press newspapers, and didn’t use the nickname O’Ree picked up in Québec.
Now, had Carnegie been the first, the historic day most likely would have come 11 years earlier on April 1, 1947, at the Boston Garden — a year after the NFL allowed black players in and two weeks before Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball. The Canadiens and Carnegie would have made history during a 5-1 victory over the Bruins in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Larry O’Brien, a sportscaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, first reported the news from a conversation between club officials and Canadiens coach Dick Irvin about how impressed the team was with Carnegie on March 29, 1947. While Irvin explained that there had been a misunderstanding, Bruins officials confirmed to O’Brien that Carnegie might be in the lineup for the teams’ opening round in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It never happened.
The best opportunity Carnegie received to reach the NHL came in 1948 with the New York Rangers. The 28-year-old was invited to the team’s rookie training camp and, by the session’s end, offered a $2,700 contract to play with the Rangers’ lowest-level farm club, the Tacoma Rockets.
It was an insult, as Carnegie, who was being paid $5,100 by the Sherbrooke Randies, was coming off a season in which he scored a career-best 127 points (48 goals and 79 assists) in 56 games. New York followed that up with a $3,700 offer sheet to play with the St. Paul Saints, which Carnegie also rejected.
For the third day in a row, the Rangers came with a bid: They would pay Carnegie $4,700 to play on their top farm system team, the New Haven Ramblers in the American League. Carnegie persuaded the Rangers reps to let him stay the four days of camp with their major leaguers to show the officials he could play in the NHL immediately.
After a training camp in which Carnegie felt that he showed he could hold his own, New York offered him the same deal. The Ramblers were just a step below the Rangers, and the team spoke of how Robinson had played a year with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm team in Montreal before being brought up to the majors.
Imagine what the papers would say, the history to be made, Rangers officials said. Carnegie, a father of three, ultimately opted not to sign a contract with the Rangers because a lesser paycheck and no promise of being called up wouldn’t feed his family. At that time, hockey players were jockeying for only 126 jobs in the NHL. There were no agents, and the NHL union would not be formed until 19 years later, so players were at the mercy of hockey clubs and their discretion.
Ten years earlier, Carnegie was an 18-year-old center playing his first year with the Ontario Hockey Association’s Toronto Young Rangers. Team owner and coach Ed Wildey had an arrangement set up with Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe that allowed the Young Rangers to practice at Maple Leaf Gardens.
One day, Wildey pulled Carnegie aside and pointed out Smythe, who was sitting in the 300-level seats. “See that man sitting in the blue? That’s Conn Smythe, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He says he’d take you tomorrow if he could turn you white.”
Smythe allegedly then said, “I will give $10,000 to anyone who can turn Herbert Carnegie white.” Carnegie recalled this story, through tears, in a 2009 interview with Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman.
“I got that statement when I was 18,” he told Friedman. “How would you feel? I can’t forget it because he cut my knees off, he broke my legs. … It’s horrible.
“I loved the game and I feel cheated. I didn’t get the chance to prove myself. I just had a door closed where I couldn’t participate. … As much fun as I had in the game, I had pain because I couldn’t have that other step.”
Former broadcaster and NHL referee Red Storey confirmed Carnegie’s account of that incident.
“There’s a reason why Herb Carnegie did not play in the NHL,” Storey began. “It’s very simple: He’s black. Don’t say we don’t have any rednecks in Canada.”
Undeterred, Carnegie would hone his game alongside his brother Ossie and, in 1941 as a member of the Timmins Bison, next to Manny McIntyre. The Afro-American on April 5, 1941, first reported in Art Carter’s ‘Odd Sights’ section how ‘Les Noirs’ made history as the first all-black line in hockey, outside of the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes, which ran from 1895 to 1930. Sam Lacy and other prominent black journalists hailed Carnegie as the man to break the color barrier, with the first such coverage coming in 1945.
“[Carnegie] should’ve played in the NHL,” O’Ree said. “He was by far a great player at that time. He could’ve been called up.”
The NHL did not break its color barrier alongside MLB, but change looked promising in 1950, the same year the NBA admitted its first black players.
Russ J. Cowans of the Chicago Defender dedicated the first part of his “Russ’ Corner” segment to Alf Lewsey, an up-and-coming lefty who was regarded by hockey folks in Winnipeg as the next great Jim Farrell.
“Hockey experts picture a bright future for him,” Cowan wrote of the teenager on Nov. 4, 1950. “It would not be a surprise to see him in the uniform of some team in the National Hockey League within the next two or three years. He can be to hockey what Jackie Robinson was to organized baseball — the guy to break down the racial barriers.”
There was also Art Dorrington, a 20-year-old from Nova Scotia, who signed a contract with the New York Rangers organization to become the first black player to ink a pro deal. The Afro-American, New York Times and Baltimore Sun broke the news of Dorrington’s signing with the Atlantic City Seagulls in the Eastern Amateur Hockey League on Nov. 15, 1950.
Under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden and four days after signing his contract, Dorrington made history as the first black man to play professional hockey in the United States. Rangers manager Frank Boucher, the one at the helm of New York’s contract negotiations with Carnegie, was in the stands that night and was pleased with how Dorrington had played.
But Boucher also told the Amsterdam News that he would “like to see him after a couple years of seasoning.” Dorrington, who finished with 18 goals in the regular season, co-signed the belief that he was “two or three seasons away” to the Los Angeles Sentinel on April 19, 1951.
Unbeknownst to Dorrington or Lewsey, the two players jockeying to become the first black player in the NHL were on a collision course that would come to a head in 1955. For five years, Dorrington had been the lone black player in the farm system. That changed on Nov. 19, 1955, when Lewsey entered the New Haven Blades’ lineup.
Six days later, with more than 3,400 fans packed in the arena, Dorrington and his Philadelphia Ramblers welcomed Lewsey and the Blades. Lewsey’s one goal in New Haven’s 8-7 victory over the home team added to the 18 points he had amassed that 1955-56 season.
Less than a year later, The Washington Post and Times-Herald‘s Bob Alden reported on Nov. 2, 1956, that Lewsey had informed Washington Lions coach Red Mitchell that he was retiring from hockey. Dorrington was out of the sport after the U.S. Army drafted him in 1956.
He was stationed in Germany for 22 months, and a month into his return to hockey for the 1957-58 season, his professional career ended. With the Ramblers tied 1-1 with Clinton (New York), Dorrington was on a breakaway. To prevent a potential score, Clinton’s coach hit Dorrington with a body block, which caused him to fall to the ice.
Philadelphia would end up upsetting Clinton, 4-2, but when doctors examined Dorrington, they determined his right thigh bone was fractured.
One of the best talents — and best people, as Dorrington’s teammates attested — was lost from the game on Jan. 24, 1958, six days after O’Ree made history.
On Page 9 of the Cleveland Call and Post‘s March 26, 1955, edition, two large smiles greeted readers. “Bound for pro league,” the headline read.
The photo introduced the pair as William O’Ree, a 19-year-old hockey player for the Frontenac Junior Hockey Club, and Stan Maxwell, a 19-year-old center for the Three-Rivers Junior Hockey Club. O’Ree “has excellent chances of moving up to the big-time hockey circuit,” wrote the Afro-American on April 9, 1955.
After all the posturing and promises to black hockey players that if they just went into the farm system for a while they would eventually find glory as the first of their race to play in the major league, the most prominent step that had ever been taken by an NHL club occurred on Sept. 20, 1957. The New York Times, in fact, wrote a more substantial story when this news broke than when O’Ree actually shattered the color barrier.
In front of 6,711 fans at the Boston Garden, Maxwell and O’Ree, the first black players to wear an NHL uniform, both contributed an assist in the Bruins’ 4-2 exhibition win over their Springfield Indians farm team.
Leading 1-0 in the second period, O’Ree stole the puck at mid-ice, dazzled the crowd with his stick handling through the defense and found Bob Armstrong with a tidy pass that he put home to give the home team a two-goal lead. With 11:40 remaining in the same frame, Maxwell got in on the action, delivering a pass from just outside of the blue line to Labine, who gave the Bruins their third and final score of the game.
Five days later, the Chicago Daily Tribune, Washington Post and Times Herald and Baltimore Sun delivered the news that a third black hockey player, John Utendale, was joining the Edmonton Flyers in the Detroit Red Wings’ farm system.
The race to become the first black player in the NHL had never been so hot, and papers put their money on either O’Ree doing so first or Maxwell and O’Ree doing the honors together. A photo of the pair from the Afro-American on Oct. 5, 1957, had the caption “Hockey Pioneers. … The two youngsters promise to become the first colored players in the history of the NHL.”
Maxwell, in a way, helped O’Ree break through — he kept O’Ree’s secret about the puck that hit him in his right eye and blinded him in 1955. As a member of the Kitchener-Waterloo Junior Canucks, a farm team for the Canadiens, O’Ree was hit above his right eye by a slap shot that ricocheted off a stick in a game against Guelph.
Blood immediately began to pour down his face, and O’Ree dropped to his knees in agony. The doctors told O’Ree that in addition to a broken nose and cheekbone, he was never going to play hockey again.
Once he overcame flinching whenever the puck came near him and the physical impediment of playing left wing with 95 percent of his vision gone from his right eye, the 19-year-old worked himself back up the ranks. O’Ree risked everything if anyone found out about his eye; Schmidt in later interviews acknowledged his frustration with not knowing about O’Ree’s handicap and said O’Ree wouldn’t have made the league had his injury been known.
O’Ree entrusted the information to two people only: his sister, Betty Robinson, and Maxwell.
“We played together, and I wanted him to know that I had to turn my head all the way around to right to look over my right shoulder to pick the puck up and to play,” O’Ree said. “It was a little difficult at first, but then I just forgot about being blind. Stan knew what I could do on the ice. He knew, playing together for the time we did, that we kind of worked well together.”
O’Ree was the only one of the black players who started the 1957-58 season in the farm systems to ever make it to the NHL. O’Ree played in 45 games (two in 1958 and 43 during the 1960-61 season) and totaled four goals and 10 assists for 14 points in his career.
O’Ree, to this day, does not understand why Maxwell was never given a chance. Utendale participated in only a handful of Red Wings training camps. Utendale’s brother, Paul, alleged that hockey blocked John from breaking through because of his interracial relationship.
“To be very candid, the reason he didn’t get to play with the Detroit Red Wings is Jack Adams, the coach and general manager at the time,” Paul Utendale told the Edmonton Journal on Sept. 8, 2006. “John was married to [Maryan Maddison Leonard]. It was a mixed marriage and that was one of the very large stumbling blocks that kept him out of the NHL. … More the mixed marriage than just being a black player.”
In a twist of fate, Utendale, O’Ree and Maxwell would form the second iteration of “The Black Line.” The crossover took place during the 1958-59 Aces season and only for a small window, as O’Ree, Maxwell and Utendale played 56, 48 and five games, respectively, for the team.
Of the 552 hockey players to start the 1982-83 NHL season, only three were black on the 25th anniversary of hockey’s integration. Approximately 21 black players found themselves on a roster by the 50th anniversary in 2008. Today, there are close to 30 black players.
In the same way that other black players took on the brunt of the beating in the minors and semi-pros and from NHL officials to make the path clearer for O’Ree, is it any wonder O’Ree has dedicated his post-playing days to that same line of work for the league?
Had it not been for his brief stint in the NHL, O’Ree doesn’t think he’d be in the position to help foster generations of players of color as the league’s diversity ambassador.
“They say things happen for a reason,” O’Ree said.