The Boston Bruins were due to retire from their jersey this week. The official ceremony was finally postponed to January 18, 2022. But Willie Urey, the first black player to play in the National Hockey League, is still talking about it.
On Thursday, it was Pittsburgh Penguins’ turn to announce the creation of a hockey school in its name for young players from the area’s black communities.
For Montrealer Laurence Mathieu-Léger, who made a documentary on O’Ree in 2018, it was time for such honors to reach the 85-year-old. She said, “I am happy that he is still alive to see this.”
Willie Urey grew up in Fredericton, New Brunswick. A talented athlete, he put himself up for the challenge, at the age of 14, to someday play in the NHL.
On January 18, 1958, he was playing in minor leagues with Quebec Ice when he was called up by the Boston Bruins for a match against the Canadians. Thus he became the first black player to play in the NHL. This earned him the nickname “Jackie Robinson the hockey player”.
Mathieu-Léger remembers how important it was to have a black player in the NHL at the time. “In 1958, in the southern United States, we were still subject to Jim Crow laws …”, she says. The director says Willie Urey is repeatedly subjected to racist insults during the games.
O’Ree played with Bruins until 1961. He then moved to other professional leagues before retiring in 1979.
Urey admitted several years later that he was completely blind in one eye. He lost use of his right eye after being injured in 1955. It was a condition that he even concealed from his parents. “The fact that he managed to break that barrier in spite of it all is inspiring people a lot,” says Matteo Leger.
From oblivion to the hall of fame
After retiring, Willie Urey has fallen into oblivion. He worked as a construction worker, was a car salesman and a restaurant manager. The NHL even launched a program to encourage diversity in hockey in the 1990s.
Bryant McBride, the first black to hold a leadership position in the NHL, was to run the program. Consulted Le Fierro from the United States for hockey. The latter recalled seeing Uri play in 1961 against the New York Rangers. Then he suggested to McBride to include O’Ree in the program.
“But no one knows where Willie Urey was. Bryant enlisted the help of an FBI friend who found Willie. He was in charge of hotel security in San Diego,” Matthew Leger recounts. Then O’Ree quit his job and agreed to work for the NHL.
A few years later, in Fredericton, childhood friends Willie Urey organized themselves. They felt that O’Ree should be inducted into the Hall of Fame. They collected the testimonials and created a file.
In February 2018 in New York, Matteo Leger spent several years working as a journalist – director at guardian. She won the highest honors for her report on inequality in the US prison system and on the battle that various societies had fought against the Keystone XL pipeline project.
One day she was talking to her next-door neighbor, who also happens to be Bryant McBride. The latter told him the story of this group of elderly Fredericton who were fighting for Willie Urey to enter the Hall of Fame. “I remember at the time that I thought it strange not to know who Willie Urey was. I was also surprised that he wasn’t actually in the Hall of Fame,” says Matteo Leger.
Immediately, she wanted to document the topic. McBride persuaded to take part in the production of the documentary. “The doors opened quickly. The story was happening in real time. You shouldn’t miss the opportunity,” says the press director.
A few days later, Matteo Leger met Willie Urey in San Diego. She went to eat Mexican food with him and his wife. I wanted him to trust me. My goal was to honor him. […] Willie is very humble. But when you met him, you knew he was important. He has a piercing aura. ”
In his documentary, Mathieu-Léger follows Willie Urey and his friends throughout 2018. until the day it’s announced he’s joining Hall of Fame.
The documentary shows that despite celebrating O’Ree’s achievement, his story remains relevant. Hockey player Devante Smith-Pelly appears in the movie among others. We have other players in the movie talking about the current context. We wanted to say it’s not over yet, “says the director.
Matthew Leger, a great athlete in his youth, also wanted to include hockey players in the documentary. “If I had the time, I would also have spoken in the documentary about local heroes and other people trying to stand out in the world of hockey, but also whose voices should be heard more everywhere,” she said.
For the director, O’Ree’s story is completely topical and touches people a lot. “The fact that he’s been forgotten for years is amazing. It’s a story of perseverance. There hasn’t been another black player in the NHL for 20 years after Willie,” she adds.
Matthew Leger can’t help but think it’s a “shame” that celebrating Willie O’Ree has taken nearly 65 years. But it was never too late, she said.
She believes that the “collective awakening” that emerged after the assassination of George Floyd may have led to the recognition that Urey is the subject of the day.
“I think it’s also connected to everything that happened last year with the collective awakening. It’s a pity that this happened around George Floyd. […] But if everyone rode the diversity train, that would be a lot better. […] I’m glad it happens while Willie is still alive. All too often, people who have broken barriers are celebrated after their death while they are not here to live in the moment. ”
After consulting with Willie O’Ree and Bruins, the NHL announced on February 11 that the retirement ceremony for the No. 22 jersey for Willie O’Ree would be postponed until January 18 next year, in hopes of celebrating “in the crowded TD park,” the league said.
Documentary Willie Currently offered on Crave.