For three winters back in the late 1960s, Alex Faulkner was Willie O’Ree’s teammate. In the 40-odd years since their time together as San Diego Gulls, Faulkner’s memories of O’Ree have not changed: he doesn’t recall O’Ree as being the first black hockey player to play in the NHL, but rather one fine hockey player.
“As a person, he was a real gentleman,” Faulkner recalled of O’Ree Tuesday morning. “As a hockey player, he was very, very good.”
O’Ree, of course, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame Monday in the builder category. The Fredericton, N.B. was the first black player to play in the NHL, when he debuted for the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958.
O’Ree would play only 45 NHL games, all with the Bruins, but had a lengthy professional career in the American Hockey League, the old Eastern Pro league and the Western Hockey League, where he toiled for 12 seasons – six each in Los Angeles and San Diego.
It was in San Diego that he was a teammate of Faulkner’s for three seasons. Another Faulkner brother, Jack, played a bit on the Gulls 1967-68 squad with Alex and O’Ree.
This all came after Alex, the swift little blonde centreman, became this province’s first player to make the grade in the NHL, in 1961.
By the time he reached San Diego, Faulkner had played out his days with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings – 113 career games, his time cut short due to injuries – and he’d just spent two years playing senior hockey in Newfoundland, with the Conception Bay CeeBees.
“It’s funny, but the one thing I remember about Willie was he was a left shot playing the right-wing,” says Faulkner. “I guess it was because of his eye, that he could see the left side of the ice better.
“It’s really quite something that he could play at the level he did with one eye.”
O’Ree had lost sight in his right eye after getting with a puck in junior hockey.
For one season, Faulkner played on a line with O’Ree in San Diego, along with Bruce “Hoagy” Carmichael.
“Never did know Carmichael’s first name,” Faulkner said.
O’Ree (38 goals, 41 assists, 79 points) tied for second in scoring on the Gulls that year. Faulkner (17-51-68) was right behind, as was Carmichael (26-31-57).
“I like to think I helped them out a bit,” Faulkner says.
The story of Jackie Robinson and what he had to contend with during his ascent to the Brooklyn Dodgers to become baseball’s first black player is well known.
O’Ree had his share of challenges, too, with racial slurs a fairly common occurrence. But Faulkner doesn’t recall any situations where things got particularly out of hand.
“For starters,” Faulkner said, “he was a good guy. There was nothing out of the ordinary that we could see. No question, he’d hear stuff, but in our dressing room, he wasn’t black or white. He was Willie, our teammate.”
The second black player in the NHL, Mike Marson, would not arrive until the 1974-75 season, with the Washington Capitals. The third, Bill Riley, would come shortly afterwards, with Washington as well.
That’s the same Riley who would spent a couple of seasons in Newfoundland senior hockey, including a stint as playing-coach on the St. John’s Capitals.
Faulkner played with a black hockey player prior to San Diego. Truro, N.S. native Clobie Collins and Faulkner were teammates on the Grand Falls Andcos prior to Faulkner’s NHL debut.
Both are in the Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador Hall of Fame.
“Clobie didn’t have any trouble here,” Faulkner said. “Certainly, the U.S. was different from Newfoundland, but we never did see anything with Clobie.
“Clobie was a great skater, a great hockey player, a great guy. He spent a lot of time at our house. I can tell you Mom cooked him a good many meals.”
Faulkner, now 82, is back in his native Bishop’s Falls, where he’s been for many years. Both he and his son own and operate Beothuck Park, an RV park and campground outside Grand Falls-Windsor.