|Monday, February 25
Updated: February 26, 1:44 PM ET
The overlooked pioneer
By Darren Rovell
Willie O'Ree is hockey's Jackie Robinson, but the historical significance of being the first black player in the NHL seems lost on collectors of sports memorabilia.
Indeed, there are few collectible items associated with O'Ree, and none carry the value of those of his baseball contemporary.
"I'm not sure exactly why Willie isn't given much respect. But it's probably a combination of many things," said Eric Mundy of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, who claims to have one of the largest collections of African-American hockey player memorabilia in the world. "I suppose some of the reasons might be that he did not play extensively in the NHL and I believe he had a reputation for missing the net, not getting shots-on-goal, though he did quite well considering he is blind in one eye."
A recent search of eBay, the online collectibles auction site, shows 537 items associated with Jackie Robinson up for bid, including his 1955 Topps card that is going for $801 and a commemorative gold coin with a bid of $775. O'Ree? A search of his name produced just two items: A collection of 10 mint 1997-98 Upper Deck Special Edition Card trading cards that were distributed at the 1998 NHL All-Star Game could be had for $5.99 and a 2001-2002 Fleer Greats game-used stick card going for $4.25.
Although O’Ree played during 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons, O'Ree's first official rookie card didn't come out until the 1997-98 season when one card company, Pinnacle, inserted O'Ree into its authentic Beehive picture and set. From 1933 to 1967, hockey fans could mail in labels on the back of Beehive corn syrup to get a photo of any NHL player -- O'Ree included -- in return.
"Willie never really had a card and he was getting more popular around the 40th anniversary of his debut in the league," said Jeffrey Morris, who was at the time Pinnacle's director of product development. "He's more popular now than when he played, which is kind of both ironic and unfortunate."
Today, O'Ree's autographed version of the Beehive card sells for around $25.
O'Ree was featured in three minor league sets, including a card with the Quebec Aces in 1957 and a WHL set in 1960. O'Ree also appears on the Boston Bruins team picture card in the 1960-61 Topps set. Topps sets during the late '50s and early '60s only had 66 cards in its yearly set, so it was unlikely that O'Ree would be included in either edition, said Al Muir, senior hockey editor for Beckett, a sports collectibles publication.
"He didn't have any real impact on the game at the time because the Canadian racial bias wasn't the same," Muir said. "But, especially because of his recent work with the NHL, he's much more prominent now."
In 1998, O'Ree was named director of youth development of the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force, overseeing a not-for-profit program designed to introduce children of diverse ethnic backgrounds to hockey in 30 North American cities.
"Perhaps as the sports gets more diverse, Willie O'Ree collectibles will become more popular. Many people that collect hockey (items) do not even know about O'Ree," said Mundy, who counts O'Ree's a 1944 Beehive photo and his 1961-62 Union Oil WHL card as part of his collection. "I suppose a reason I collect black hockey players (memorabilia) is that I like hockey and just to demonstrate to others that it's not a whites-only sport. It's a pet peeve of mine when somebody says this."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com