For O'Ree, outdoor hockey is a natural
O'Ree is looking forward to the second NHL Winter Classic game Jan. 1 when the Chicago Blackhawks host their Central Division rivals, the Red Wings. The success of the first Winter Classic on New Year's Day 2008 in Buffalo between the Sabres and the victorious Pittsburgh Penguins has hockey fans in anticipation for the renewal.
Outdoor hockey was the foundation for O'Ree, the director of the NHL's Diversity Program, and most members of his generation. By the time O'Ree stepped onto an artificial rink, he already possessed the beautiful skating stride that would make him an NHL player.
When O'Ree, who became the NHL's first black player in 1958, grew up in Fredericton, the city recreation department's outdoor rinks were the high end and most skating was done on streets, frozen playgrounds and backyards, ponds and the St. John River.
"I remember my dad, Harry, making a rink in our backyard," O'Ree said. "We shoveled off the snow. He took the hose out back and flooded the yard and there it was. I would skate out there every day in the winter. Then, I'd skate to school. My elementary school was 2 1/2 blocks away and I'd skate down the road or the sidewalk. Sometimes, there'd be a patch without ice and we'd hop to the next patch of ice.
"There were four city-run outdoor rinks within 15 minutes of my house, and that gave kids an opportunity to get on the ice every day. We'd always find enough kids for a pickup game on the road, in the backyard or at one of the outdoor rinks."
O'Ree would tell you that it was colder when he was growing up. The 1950s were colder than most of the past 20 years.
"If we were skating or skiing or tobogganing or just throwing snowballs, we didn't seem to mind the cold," O'Ree said. "Our ears and toes would be half frozen. Our parents would have to take our skates off and get towels to warm our feet, but the next day, we'd be right back out there. There were many times I'd think 'That's enough. I'll give it a few days without skating,' but the next day, there would be a knock on my door and three or four of my buddies would be standing there with their skates on their shoulders. Out I'd go.
"We'd start skating outdoors in November and we'd still have ice in March and, in some places, in April. The ice on the river would break up first. We had quite a long season. When you had the opportunity to play indoors, it was nice with the heat, but we mostly played outdoors. We'd wear our long johns and a couple of shirts under our hockey jerseys. I had cotton gloves my mum bought me under my hockey gloves."
It wasn't just cold in Fredericton in the 1950s -- the city got plenty of snow too.
"Before we moved into our home, we rented a house that would get tremendous drifts," O'Ree recalled. "My bedroom window was about 12 feet above ground and in winter, the snow would block our front and back doors. I'd jump out my window into a snowbank and then climb over to where I'd hung a shovel from a tree branch. I'd get that shovel and clear out the front and back doors so we could get in and out of the house."
Most the players in the Winter Classic grew up playing hockey in indoor rinks and few have played organized hockey outdoors. It was just the opposite for O'Ree and his generation of Canadian skaters.
"There were organized teams playing out of the outdoor rinks at Queens Square, south of where I lived, and Wilmont Park, to the north," O'Ree said. "I didn't play in an indoor rink until I was 14. Sometimes, it would snow so bad that we'd plow the rink during the game. But if it just kept snowing, you couldn't finish the game. I'm convinced that you can glide further on natural ice than artificial ice.
"I tried out for my high school team, and we played indoors at the same rink as the senior-league team, the Fredericton Capitals, that all the fans paid to see. It was there that the scouts saw me at age 16, playing with the Capitals. Phil Watson gave me the chance to come to Quebec City to play for the Frontenacs junior team. I played one year for Phil and then went to play for the Kitchener-Waterloo Junior Canucks and that's who I was playing for when I suffered my eye injury."
O'Ree kept secret the injury that would have barred him from the NHL, had officials known. It didn't affect his world-class skating, but it did impair his scoring ability. O'Ree had four goals and 10 assists in 45 NHL games during two seasons with the Boston Bruins. He then played 16 minor-league seasons and was helped greatly by switching to the off-wing, a rare assignment in those days.
O'Ree was a complete player, with great skating skills, alert offensive skills and excellent defensive ability. He got paid to play hockey for more than 20 years and it was his skating that always earned him a spot in the lineup.
"I was always a good skater because it was a natural thing for me," O'Ree said. "I worked at it, but it just seemed to flow out of me. I was one of the fastest skaters in the NHL. I would stay with the player I was checking and then break into holes to get a pass. From a dead stop, I could be at top speed in four or five strides where it would take most guys six, seven or eight strides. Consequently, I got a lot of breakaways."
Outdoors or indoors, there was no catching O'Ree. Earlier this year, Fredericton named its new $16 million northside arena Willie O'Ree Place. Ironically, it's an indoor rink.