Willie O’Ree Place, located at 605 Cliffe Street in Fredericton, is a state-of-the-art, fully accessible facility. It boasts two NHL-sized ice rinks, 11 spacious dressing rooms, offices for officials and event organizers, an indoor walking track, three community use rooms, canteens managed by the Nashwaaksis Y’s Men Club, the Fredericton YMCA Northside Wellness Centre, a seasonal youth center, and an indoor skateboard park. This modern establishment is also home to Fredericton’s Celebration of Sport.
On January 16, 2008, the North Side Sports & Leisure Complex was officially renamed Willie O’Ree Place, commemorating the Fredericton-born man who broke racial barriers by becoming the first black player in the National Hockey League half a century prior.
Born on October 15, 1935, in Fredericton, Willie Eldon O’Ree emerged from the New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association. Known for his exceptional speed and checking skills, O’Ree posed a constant threat on the ice.
After his time in the NBAHA, O’Ree briefly played for the York County Hockey League’s Fredericton Merchants before moving on to the New Brunswick Junior Hockey League’s Fredericton Jr. Capitals.
The Fredericton-born athlete spent parts of the 1951-52 and 1952-53 seasons with the Jr. Capitals before playing for the Fredericton Capitals of the New Brunswick Senior Hockey League during the 1952-53 and 1953-54 seasons.
While with the Capitals, O’Ree propelled his team to the 1954 Allan Cup tournament. He then joined the Quebec Junior Hockey League’s Quebec Frontenacs in 1954-55, leading them to the 1955 Memorial Cup tournament.
O’Ree’s journey continued in Quebec for a season before he moved to the Ontario Hockey Association Junior ‘A’ Hockey League’s Kitchener Canucks in 1955-56, where he achieved a career-best 30 goals. In the 1956-57 season, he joined the Quebec Aces in the Quebec Hockey League. While with the Aces, O’Ree and his team vied for the Edinburgh Trophy, a Challenge Series contested between the Western Hockey League and the Quebec Hockey League from 1953 to 1956.
In the 1957-58 season, O’Ree primarily played for the Aces, with a brief stint with the American Hockey League’s Springfield Indians, leading up to his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins. His first game in the NHL was a significant historical event as he became the first black player in the league. He then returned to the Aces for the 1958-59 season.
After playing in Kingston in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, O’Ree returned to the Bruins in 1960-61. In this season, he played 43 games and scored his first NHL goal against the Montreal Canadiens. Although he spent most of his time with Boston, O’Ree also played for the EPHL’s Hull-Ottawa Canadians before being traded to the Montreal Canadiens during the off-season.
O’Ree never took to the ice for Montreal and was instead traded to the Western Hockey League’s Los Angeles Blades after starting the season in the EPHL. He played for Los Angeles for six seasons, peaking with 38 goals in the 1964-65 season. In the summer of 1967, he was traded to the WHL’s San Diego Gulls.
O’Ree had a seven-season tenure with San Diego, setting a career record of 79 points in the 1968-69 season and earning WHL Second Team All-Star recognition. In the 1972 WHA General Player Draft, he was selected by the Los Angeles Sharks.
While in San Diego, O’Ree spent most of the 1972-73 season with the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks. After his 13 years in the Western Hockey League, he joined the Southern California Senior Hockey League’s San Diego Charms, where he played for two seasons before taking a two-year break from 1976 to 1978.
In the 1978-79 season, O’Ree returned to professional hockey as a member of the Pacific Hockey League’s San Diego Hawks, finally retiring at the end of the season.
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