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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Willie O’Ree Waited 40 Years For His Rookie Card

The Boston Bruins retired Willie O’Ree’s number 22 this week.  As I watched the ceremony, I sat in my mancave and flipped through a couple of binders of hockey cards and old BeeHive photos.

Tuesday was the 64th anniversary of O’Ree’s NHL debut, when he broke the NHL’s color barrier.  On Wednesday, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

“From a young age, my heart and my mind were set on making it to the NHL. I’m grateful and honored that it was with the Bruins,” O’Ree said in his speech delivered virtually before the Bruins’ game against the visiting Carolina Hurricanes. “To Bruins fans, I am honored to have had the pleasure of playing before you. Thank you for your tremendous love and support. This is an unforgettable day. I am overwhelmed and thrilled to be a part of the Bruins forever.”

My thoughts drifted back 25 years, when I was working at Pinnacle Brands. I was fortunate enough to have had a great career developing some memorable trading card products and coming up with some innovative ideas in my career. But the one thing I am most proud of is being responsible for Willie O’Ree’s NHL rookie card.

On April 15, 1997, our company had a special celebration for the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. That year, we produced a special Jackie Robinson Hologram tribute card for Denny’s, and we were working on a Dufex technology Robinson card for the Major League Baseball All-Star FanFest.

One of my co-workers asked me who the first Black player in the NHL was. I told him a little bit about Willie O’Ree. But when I got back to my desk, my mind began to wander. I had a big, thick Charlton Hockey Card Catalogue at my desk.

I looked up Willie O’Ree in the Charlton – we weren’t using the world wide web yet – and saw that his only hockey cards had been in a team-issued Quebec Aces set in 1956-57 and a card from when he played with the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League in the early 1960s. That one was a black and white card with a sketched card front. His only NHL collectible that was close to a card at that time was a BeeHive photo.

At that moment, an idea was born. What if Pinnacle resurrected BeeHive photos as a hockey card brand, and what if Willie O’Ree was included in the set? It would be his rookie card, as neither Topps nor Parkhurst had ever made a card of him back in the day.

From the 1930s into the 1960s, BeeHive photos were as popular as cards to Canadian hockey collectors. Although they are almost remedial in quality compared to even vintage hockey cards, they were treasures. If you sent in the label from your container of BeeHive corn syrup to St. Lawrence Starch Co. in Port Credit, Ontario, a hockey photo of your choice would be mailed to you.

At the peak of the BeeHive photo promotion, St. Lawrence Starch sent out close to 2,500 photos per day. They were simple black and white 4.25” by 6.75” pictures on magazine-stock paper, glued onto a piece of cardboard. Beginning in 1964, the photos were produced as one piece, on a woodgrain border.

From 1934-67, there were 604 NHL players included in the BeeHive promotion. Willie O’Ree was included in the set.

Vintage hockey cards and Bee Hive photos were still very popular at shows like the Sport Card Memorabilia Expo in Toronto and the Montreal Hockey Collectors’ Show at the Maurice Richard Arena in Montreal. If we were going to make a set like this, it had to be done right. It had to include design elements and photography that was consistent with what BeeHive photos would look like in 1997. It would also need vintage autographs. I was able to secure one player from each Original Six team – Maurice Richard (Montreal), Johnny Bower (Toronto), Stan Mikita (Chicago), Andy Bathgate (NY Rangers) Johnny Bucyk (Boston) and Ted Lindsay (Detroit).

There was also a special Willie O’Ree card, along with autographs.

We also worked out a deal with the Canadian Hockey League to have some of the top junior hockey stars in the set. That gave us rookie cards and autographs no one else had. The players in the set were the top-rated NHL prospects of that year. While Roberto Luongo is the autograph and rookie card that has stood the test of time, and the first Brendan Morrison rookie card and autograph were in the set, most of the players did not live up to their pro expectations.

No matter how many scouting reports I read and how many VHS tapes I watched selecting the players, I would have been lucky to have my mark bumped up to a D-minus on that one.

Resurrecting Bee Hive

The first step in making Willie O’Ree’s rookie card and Bee Hive Hockey a reality was to run it by Greg Bochicchio and Tom Farrell. Greg was from Boston and Bruins fan, while Tom was from L.A. and grew up as a big Kings fan. It was different from most of the things everyone was doing, but that’s exactly what we needed at that time. We needed different.

The next step was to convince the army of guys in expensive suits and squeaky shoes. That step, which we went through for each product, was the most intimidating part of the job. We sat in the board room with CEO Michael Cleary and a team of VPs. Michael was a former Ivy League hockey player and was very intimidating, but he was always incredibly kind and supportive to me. Jim Brockhausen was our VP of Sales. He was always smiling and positive, except for these meetings. For some reason, he always seemed to be eating yogurt in the boardroom. If he didn’t like the product we were presenting to him, his face would turn purple and he would start sweating. He would have yogurt all over his face, it would seem like he would crawl out of his chair and on top of the boardroom table, and, well, let’s just say he wasn’t Dr. Banner anymore.

We needed that, though. Our fear of Jim having a melt down in our Monday morning meetings drove us to think everything through and be totally buttoned up.

I sold the group on the idea, and sold them on the fact that we needed to make the first Willie O’Ree card. Michael was supportive of the concept, and even insisted that we bump the autograph content up to one per box. He wanted this product to be a slam dunk. Hall of Fame and rookie autographs were a huge selling point.

We also had redemption cards for actual Bee Hive photos, which I sourced through a vintage sports card and memorabilia dealer at the Expo in Toronto.

The next step was to get in touch with St. Lawrence Starch Company. They green-lit the idea of having a Bee Hive hockey card brand. Brendan Morrison had just won the Hobey Baker Trophy for the Michigan Wolverines and was a huge prospect at the time. He was the first big client represented by one of today’s top hockey agents, Kurt Overhardt. We worked out a deal where Brendan would appear on the box and packaging with Maurice Richard, in a past-meets-the-future kind of way. Both players wore number 9, which was really cool.

I got to know Brendan through this process. One thing we did was to give him the first box that came off the packaging line. We sent it to him through Kurt with a thank you letter. He thought that was really cool, to have the first box. If I ever get to chat with Brendan again, the first question I will ask him is if he still has that box.

The last step was to secure Willie O’Ree. He had just started doing some work for the NHL and, in 1998, was hired as the NHL Diversity Ambassador. We were told that before that, he had been working as a parking lot attendant in San Diego, where he finished his minor league career in 1979 at the age of 43.

I got O’Ree’s number from our licensing contacts at the NHL, and my stomach was doing flips as I dialed his number. He answered his phone, and I nervously introduced myself. I told him we were resurrecting Bee Hive photos as a hockey card set, and that we wanted to make his first NHL hockey card. He didn’t realize that he had never had an NHL card. He was thrilled with the idea, and he was always very kind and appreciative of everything we were doing.

One of the challenges we faced is that there are not a lot of photos of O’Ree playing in the NHL. The photo we used for the set was taken at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 29, 1958 during pre-game warm-ups before the Bruins played the New York Rangers. It was the same photo used on his original Bee Hive photo.

Bettman Announces O’Ree’s Rookie Card

The Pinnacle NHL All-Star Fantasy was held in Vancouver In January, 1998. Our VP of Public Relations, Laurie Goldberg, arranged for us to have a press conference during the event. She somehow convinced Gary Bettman to join us to announce that Pinnacle was resurrecting Bee Hive photos and that we were making the first NHL hockey card of Willie O’Ree. We also had members of the Gray family, who owned St. Lawrence Starch when the promotion ran, in Vancouver to talk to the media about the history of Bee Hive photos.

It was kind of our last hurrah in Vancouver. After the press conference, Laurie pulled me aside and told me that at that moment, the corporate axes were swinging in Dallas. More than half of Pinnacle’s staff was let go on the day that our Bee Hive product was launched. Another wave was right behind a few weeks later. Michael Cleary turned one of the board rooms into a job search room that anyone who had been laid off could come in and use, and he even helped employees with their resumes. By June, we were in Chapter 11 and down to a skeleton staff. When I left Pinnacle in September, 1998, I was one of eight people left with the company.

Since the Pinnacle BeeHive O’Ree rookie card was produced, there have been more than 300 O’Ree cards made. Last season, Upper Deck included him in O-Pee-Chee Hockey and Upper Deck artifacts, while Leaf included O’Ree in In The Game Used.

Yet, despite the numerous O’Ree cards now on the market, you can count the number of photos available of him from his 46-game NHL career on one hand. There is one particular photo that has been used on many cards. When O’Ree does signings, this photo is usually used for 8x10s. At a signing several years after the Pinnacle Bee Hive rookie card was released, I had a chat with him and caught up. I turned on my digital recorder for an interview, as I had transitioned my career into journalism and publishing.

He paused for a moment, and asked me where I was from.

“A little town on the border in Eastern Ontario,” I said. “Prescott.”

Willie O’Ree’s eyes lit up.

“Prescott,” he said with a smile. “That’s where Leo Boivin is from. He is the other Bruin in this photo. Do you know him?”

“Yes sir, I do,” I told him. “In fact, Leo and my father grew up together.”

“You know, I will tell you about Leo,” he said. Boivin had assisted O’Ree’s first NHL goal.

“It was New Year’s Day, January 1st, 1961, at the Boston Garden. We were playing the Montreal Canadiens. It was the second period,” he said.

“I’m playing left wing and I broke free from my check and I put the afterburners on and Leo Boivin hit me with a perfect pass. I didn’t have to break stride or anything. I went in and made a couple shifts on the defensemen. I got past Jean-Guy Talbot and Tom Johnson and had a clear path to the net.”

On his way to the net, O’Ree recalled some advice he was given before the game.

“Charlie Hodge was in net because Jacques Plante was hurt,” he said. “When we were warming up, Bronco Horvath had told me before the game, he said, ‘Willie, if you get a chance to go in on Hodge, shoot low. He’s weak on low shots. Don’t get the puck up where he can catch it.’

“So when I went around the defensemen and went in on Hodge, all I could hear was this voice saying, ‘shoot the puck low, Willie. Shoot the puck low.’ So I shot the puck, maybe it was an inch or two off the ice, it was just a blisterin’. It hit the inside of the post and went in.

“That made it 3-1 for the Bruins, and then about seven minutes later Henri Richard, the Pocket Rocket, scored to make it 3-2, but the goal that I got stood up as the winning goal. I dove in the net, got the puck, and the fans gave me a standing ovation for over two minutes!”

O’Ree could have scored more goals had it not been for a serious injury that he played through. While he played junior hockey for the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks, he took a puck in the face and lost 95 per cent of the vision in his right eye. As a left winger, it severely limited his effectiveness.

“Leo played for the Inkerman Rockets when they were really good,” he said of the famed junior team that played their home games outdoors. “I wonder if he ever played against Herb Carnegie?”

On my next trip home, I saw Leo and told him about chatting with Willie O’Ree.

“What a great guy,” Leo said with a warm smile. “He was a great teammate.”

After that year, Willie was traded to Montreal. He knew that would be the end of his NHL career. The Canadiens had a dynasty, and there would be no room for him on their roster. What ensued was a life of being a star in the minors.

That night, I thought about Willie O’Ree’s place in history. I was thrilled and honored to be the person responsible for the making of his first NHL hockey card.

I thought back to holding a copy of it at my desk while at Pinnacle. It was just released. I opened a box and hung onto his card when I pulled it out of a pack.

“It will be like a piece of history,” said one of my co-workers, who helped me open the box.

“No,” I said. “It will be something that people can look at and learn about history.”

I haven’t seen or talked to Willie O’Ree in 15 years. I doubt that he would remember me right away, but I know he would if I reminded him of the Bee Hive card. My autographed version of that card is my most cherished keepsake and best memory from my time at Pinnacle.

Making Willie O’Ree’s NHL rookie card was one thing. But as I watched the celebration of his jersey retirement, I realized that making a friend was even better.

About Jeff Morris

Jeff Morris is a hobby veteran who has been a collector for more than 50 years. Originally a hobby journalist, he became brand manager at Pinnacle, and then was an executive for Collector’s Edge and Shop at Home before joining Pacific Trading Cards as VP of Marketing. He is the former editor and publisher of Canadian Sports Collector magazine, and he was also a columnist for ESPN.com.

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