Interviewee: Willie O’Ree
Location: Fredericton, NB
Courtesy of New Brunswick Filmmakers’ Co-operative, 2021.
[Text in screen] On June 28, 1991, the NB Film Co-op flew Willie O’Ree and his family to Fredericton to commence shooting a film about his life. The following video is from the press conference that kicked off the documentary production.
The film was made by Errol Williams through the New Brunswick Filmmakers’ Co-operative and debuted in fall 1997.
Press Conference Fredericton City Hall June 28, 1991. Seated around a boardroom table with Willie O’Ree – Fredericton Mayor Brad Woodside on his left and Errol Williams on his right.
[Mayor Brad Woodside] Good afternoon ladies, and gentlemen, first of all, let me welcome you to City Hall. The River Jubilee folks are here… I would also like to welcome Murray Wadden, the manager of Air Canada, who is a participant in the project, very good to help us out.
I would like to say, as Mayor, how very pleased I am that Willie has come home for our Canada Day celebrations, River Jubilee, and very pleased that we are recognizing… officially… his contribution to sport, as.. one of our own, and as well having a proclamation, for a very special day for him, having him participate in the parade, and also how very pleased I am that Errol is doing this film on life and times of Willie O’Ree.
I think that it goes without saying, on previous visits home, Willie, that you’re… that you’re a hero here, and we’re very proud of your accomplishments, and I’ve been reading up on the background information, that you’re not only a tremendous athlete but a fine gentleman. And let me just say, it is very good to have you home again.
[Willie O’Ree (WO’R)] Thank you very much [Close up of Willie O’Ree as he speaks].
[WO’R] I knew that I was good enough to play in the National Hockey League, I knew that. Whatever I had, whatever steppingstones I had to step over to get there, then, you know, I always kept in mind, that I knew, they say the difference between a minor league hockey player and a major league hockey player is from the neck up, which is, you know, usually anticipation, and you know…
When I went, when I was playing pro… I thought about playing in the National Hockey League, and I knew it was going be a lot harder for me, being Black, than others; but, I said, the only thing I could do is play as hard… as hard as I can, and play to the best of my ability. And whatever happens, or whatever happens, happens. And… I guess the timing was right, you know, when I went up in 1958, and they could’ve probably… there was two or three other left wingers, possibly, that they could have chosen to go up and play against the Canadiens that night, two nights in 1958, but they said, you know, I got the call, and then I had to play… and when I stepped on the ice on Montreal, again too… you know, I was no stranger there. I was just another player. So…
[Errol Williams (EW)] Plus the fact too, there were other Black players around too…
[Camera pans to Errol Williams]
[WO’R] Yes, you know, there was Manny McIntyre, who resides in Montreal,
[Camera widens to show both Errol Williams and Willie O’Ree seated at the boardroom table] …the Carnegie brothers, Herbie and Ossie Carnegie, they were in Toronto.
Ah! But, you know, I, never really… put my colour, you know, saying you know, I’m Black. I just went there, and I said I’m going to play. That’s it. If they want to look at me for who I am, fine. If they want to look at me as that I’m a Black man, you know, there and that I shouldn’t be there, then, then that’s their problem. So, when I went out, I just went out and played. You know, that’s all I could do.
[Reporter (female). Camera widens to show unidentified reporters also seated at the table] Do you think that your colour ever had an effect on any, say of your trades or anything like that, or the way you were treated in any clubs or by the management like that?
[WO’R] Mostly, well again too, [Camera pans back to a closeup of Willie O’Ree] when I was traded from Montreal to Los Angeles, they said that I was traded for two other players, who I had played against and one I had played with, and an undiscloded amount of cash. I mean that, that could have been, that could have just been fabricated, you know.
The way I was traded didn’t set well with me. I just walked into practice one morning and, the general manager wants to see me, he’s got an envelop in his hand, and he hands it to me and he says “You’re going to LA, your plane leaves at 12:50.” And that was it!
So I took the envelop, and I was on the plane and out there. Now… maybe… my colour did have something to do with it. I really don’t know. I didn’t really look into it, or say well I’m not going, or why was I traded, because, again too, I was having a good year. I was… I was the leading scorer.
[Reporter] Why weren’t you playing with the Canadiens though? Why? Why? I see in here that they talk about the…
[WO’R] Why wasn’t I playing with the Montreal Canadiens? Well, because I think at that time, back in that time you had to be French to play with the Montreal Canadiens. If you weren’t French, you weren’t playing with the Montreal Canadiens. I don’t care how good you are. If you weren’t French you weren’t playing with them.
[ER] Did you get to play with Jean Belliveau? Did you ever get the chance?
[WO’R] Played against him. He was with the Montreal Canadiens, I was with the Bruins. Played against him. But, I never did, I never did play with him.
[ER] Did you play with him with the Quebec Aces?
[WO’R] He was with the Quebec Aces, that’s when they were the senior team, and then he went with Montreal Canadiens, and then I, I came two years later, when they formed the Quebec Professional Hockey League.
[Reporter] Now, Willie and Errol, if we could interrupt for just one minute, we have a camera man who is going to have to leave, so if we could have you both here for like a minute just for them to ask just one…