Our countdown to the start of the season continues, with 42 days to go.
When it comes to sports, some numbers are tied to the fabric of a city. Ask anyone in Chicago about #23, Green Bay about #4, or Detroit about #9. Los Angeles has to be one of the few cities tied to a jersey number who never actually played as a professional in that city. But Jackie Robinson was no ordinary #42, and even if his whole MLB career was based in Brooklyn, his Pasadena upbringing, UCLA exploits, and the Dodgers’ long and storied history in LA ensure that his Los Angeles legacy is strong.
“Great. What does this have to do with hockey?”
There’s a story told by Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the history of the NHL, in his Player’s Tribune article about breaking the color barrier. In 1949, his youth baseball team won a junior championship, and as a reward his team got to meet Mr. Robinson himself after a Brooklyn Dodgers game. As O’Ree tells us:
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Robinson,” I say. “I’m Willie O’Ree.”
“Nice to meet you, Willie,” Jackie says, shaking my hand.
He flashes a smile, and I can sense him moving on — shifting his posture to the next kid on the team. I turn to him, slightly.
“I’m a baseball player,” I say, raising my voice. “But what I really love — is hockey.”
“Oh?” Jackie says, turning back to me, still smiling. “I didn’t know black kids played hockey.”
I smile back.
O’Ree played 45 games with the Boston Bruins at the NHL level, and that’s where the knowledge of him ends for most. If you go to an AHL game at the San Diego Gulls’ arena, though, you’d get an initial clue that much like Robinson, he has his own California story.
The season after O’Ree’s final NHL stint, he moved out west to join the newly formed Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League, where he spent six seasons. To that point, the Blades were the largest hockey attraction LA had ever seen. O’Ree thrived, scoring 175 goals in the better part of six seasons, and he’ll forever be the franchise leader in both goals and points. Due to the arrival of some NHL team in LA in 1967, the Blades folded, and he headed to San Diego to play for the year-old Gulls. O’Ree added another 152 goals to his career WHL tally out there, and as evidenced by that banner in San Diego, he’s still fondly remembered. The Gulls folded in 1974 with O’Ree still on the squad, meaning that O’Ree was on either LA or San Diego for the entire time those two teams existed.
O’Ree’s footsteps were followed by Mike Marson, who became the second black player to appear in an NHL game in the same year O’Ree retired. Marson ended his career in (where else?) Los Angeles, playing three games with the Kings and becoming the first black man to wear the crown. Others, from Grant Fuhr to Wayne Simmonds, have since played for the Kings, but O’Ree truly paved the way. That’s evidenced even more by Simmonds’ appreciation for O’Ree; he cites O’Ree as an inspiration growing up, and he’s since volunteered with O’Ree to help increase hockey’s diversity.
Here’s how the man Simmonds calls “my Jackie Robinson” caps off his story in the Players’ Tribune:
It’s 1962, I’m 27 years old, and I’ve just been invited to an NAACP luncheon.
I’m there with the coach of my current team, the Los Angeles Blades, and a few other players. My coach notices the guest of honor, standing over in the corner — minding his business, talking to some people. He waits a few minutes for their conversation to end. And then he brings me over.
He taps the guest of honor on the shoulder.
“Mr. Robinson, I’d like you to meet one of our players, Willie O’Ree.”
Jackie Robinson turns around, and looks at me for a moment.
“Willie O’Ree,” he says, shaking my hand. “You’re the young fellow I met in Brooklyn.”
Tomorrow: day 41, and a guy who also set franchise records... for the modern LA hockey team.