This Series of articles was Originally Written for the Maritime NHLer’s For Kids. The articles were to pay homage to the six surviving men from this region who suited up during the toughest era of the game ever to seen.
Chapter 1 The Journey of a Lifetime
Al MacNeil’s path to hockey’s highest level is one of the most memorable journeys the Maritimes have ever witnessed. His amazing longevity in the game as a player, coach and executive is truly legendary.
In hockey’s greatest and most challenging time the kid from Sydney, Nova Scotia excelled, playing 487 NHL games in the Original Six era and 561 contests overall.
Sydney, Nova Scotia to Toronto, Ontario. 2000 Kilometers. That was the distance between Al MacNeil’s hockey dreams and reality. In the “good old days” the NHL’s six teams had a pipeline to the Maritimes that is radically different than what is typical today. However, the hockey world is a small one, and it certainly didn’t take too long for word get out about the solid skating, sturdy defenseman from Cape Breton.
The Toronto Maple Leafs came calling for MacNeil. In 1952-53 MacNeil played for the Weston Dukes. From there, the skilled two-way blue liner would make the jump to the famed Toronto Marlboros of the OHA. He would play three seasons for the Marlboros before getting the call that all hockey playing kids dream of.
MacNeil’s dream had finally come true; he would skate under the bright lights of the NHL. It might have only been one game that year, but the then nineteen year was closer than ever to becoming an NHL regular.
After making his NHL debut in 1955-56, MacNeil skated for the Rochester Americans of the AHL and would see time there off and on over the next few seasons. Over that span MacNeil played 71 NHL games for the Leafs before getting picked up by the Montreal Canadiens in 1960-61. He would only play one season in “Le Belle Province” before moving on to the Chicago Black Hawks. The veteran rear guard played four seasons with that organization, reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 1965 and surpassing career highs in games played during that time.
In 1966-67 MacNeil would suit up for the New York Rangers before finishing out his NHL playing days with the expansion Pittsburgh Penguins.
The talented, hard-nosed defenseman finished off a fourteen-year professional playing career with the Montreal Voyageurs in 1969-70. It might have signaled the end of one chapter, but in fact, it proved to be the beginning of another.
MacNeil’s character, pride and knowledge of the game made him a perfect candidate to be a coach. The Montreal Canadiens organization gave him that opportunity.
MacNeil was player/coach for the Voyageurs in 1969-70, skating in 66 games and guiding the first-year squad to a league-best 43-15-14 record. He was brought up to the parent club as an assistant coach in 1970-71 and was promoted to head coach mid-year, piloting the Canadiens to an unlikely Stanley Cup championship that spring under sometimes tumultuous circumstances.
After the Voyageurs moved to Halifax in the offseason, MacNeil, who had stepped down as the Habs bench boss, was named head coach of the AHL club.
In 1971-72, he led the Vees to a 41-21-14 record and their first Calder Cup championship, earning the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the league’s outstanding coach. Nova Scotia returned to the Finals in 1973 and qualified for the playoffs again in 1974 and 1975 under MacNeil’s direction.
MacNeil’s Voyageurs posted two of the greatest back-to-back seasons in AHL history in 1975-76 and 1976-77, combining for 100 regular-season wins and capturing consecutive Calder Cups. MacNeil, who won his second Pieri Award in 1976, guided the Voyageurs to four 100-point campaigns in his seven years at the helm.
MacNeil returned to Montreal as the Canadiens’ director of player personnel and won two more Stanley Cups in 1978 and 1979 – giving him six league championships in nine seasons. He joined the Atlanta Flames as head coach in 1979-80 and was assistant general manager of Calgary’s Stanley Cup winning team in 1989, downing a Canadiens organization he had cut his coaching teeth with two decades earlier in the Final.
With a 304-149-78 record in his six seasons as an AHL head coach, MacNeil owns the highest winning percentage (.646) in league history. He is one of only six coaches ever to win as many as three Calder Cups, and one of six men ever to coach championship teams in both the AHL and the NHL.
From playing to coaching to his work behind the scenes as an executive Al MacNeil paved the way for many Maritimers dreaming that anything is possible when it comes to the game of hockey.
A lifetime of success and a pioneer both on and off the ice Al MacNeil’s lifetime journey in the game is the stuff of legend. As a result, he and the game of hockey will be forever connected.
Chapter 2 PEI’s Hockey Trailblazer
He was never the biggest man on the ice, but Forbes Kennedy played hockey like a giant. The history books tell us the PEI native stood five-foot-eight and weighed 150 pounds, so he relied on the skill, toughness and grit that was entrenched in him as a young man in the Maritimes. He also relied on a singular desire that would take him off the island and onto the road to pro hockey.
“I couldn’t do carpenter work or be a plumber, I didn’t have the patience to learn a trade, all I wanted to do was play hockey,” Kennedy said. “I considered that to be my job. I was so lucky coming out of junior, the only thing I had to learn was how teams wanted to come out of their zone.”
Kennedy played under the tutelage of Hall of Famers Sam Pollock and Elmer Lach in the mid 1950’s with the famed Montreal Junior Canadiens.
“Leaving PEI to go away to play Junior hockey back then you never would think about one day you would be playing in the NHL,” Kennedy said.
In Kennedy’s final year with the Junior Canadiens he and the late Henri Richard would be the only players that would attend main training camp with the parent club. Kennedy was returned to the junior ranks while Richard made the jump to the NHL. The Chicago Black Hawks purchased Kennedy’s rights the following year. Kennedy’s memories of his NHL debut in 1956 has never faded.
“You remember your first game more than your first goal,” said Kennedy. “I remember being in Detroit for my first game and walking in the dressing room just standing there looking around and seeing my jersey hanging up. I didn’t know if I was dressing or not, I was only a rookie. It took someone to say, ‘Hey you, are you getting dressed or what? Get your gear on!’ I was just so nervous during that first game. I lost my guy on the back check. I knew better and boy did ever get it when I got back to the bench.”
Early jitters notwithstanding, it a very solid rookie campaign with the Black Hawks. Entering his sophomore season, Kennedy was traded to Detroit, becoming teammates with iconic Gordie Howe. Another legend, Ted Lindsay, went the other way in what was to become one of the most infamous swaps in hockey history; one that was precipitated by Lindsay’s attempt to form a player’s union among his peers both on the Red Wings and within the NHL at large.
From there, Kennedy played for half of the Original Six franchises within a six-year span during hockey’s toughest era, truly remarkable given the era of the game and his roots.
Kennedy played 172 games in five years with the Red Wings before joining Boston in 1962-63. In all Forbes Kennedy suited up for 462 games during the Original Six era. His final NHL games would come with the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs in 1969.
After his playing days, Kennedy turned to coaching, a vocation that would bring him back to PEI as the bench boss of first the Charlottetown Junior “A” Abbies and finally the Summerside Western Capitals of the MHL. His time guiding the Abbies was highlighted with a trip to the national Junior “A” championship final, then known as the RBC Cup, in 1999.
Kennedy’s time invested with charitable organizations is well known throughout the region. That commitment is reflected in the fact that he has joined the Maritime NHLers for Kids event every single year since its inception in 2000. An attendance record that only he and founder Rick Bowness can stake claim to.
There’s no question Forbie Kennedy is a Maritime icon, both as a player and a person, who undoubtedly left the game better than when he found it. For that, countless Maritimers thank him.
Chapter 3 A Memorable Journey for Jigger: Paul Andrea’s Path to the Pros
The game of hockey was a way of life for North Sydney’s Paul “Jigger” Andrea. Andrea, like so many others from Cape Breton, honed his unique skills and natural abilities on the outdoor rinks and the friendly, freezing confines of the neighboring Forum, just a stone’s throw away from his house.
The highly skilled two-way forward was one of several Maritimers over the years that had to leave their family and way of live to pursue their hockey dreams. At seventeen years old Andrea joined the Guelph Biltmores, a junior affiliate of New York Rangers that played in the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA). Legendary coach and hockey mind Emile Cat Francis would coach Andrea in his final year of junior hockey in 1960-1961. Over his time in junior, he would share the ice with the likes of Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle, finishing fourth in team scoring in 1961, closing out his junior career with 98 points in 119 regular season games.
Andrea’s dream to play in the NHL was in reach, but it just so happened to be at a time where only select few could skate under the bright lights of the NHL. The Original Six era made reaching the world’s top league almost impossible to achieve. Andrea plied his trade like so many others in the old Eastern Professional Hockey League the WHL and the CPHL before finally realizing his childhood dream.
1,595.8KM’s. Cape Breton to New York, that was the space between Paul Andrea’s dreams and reality.
After two masterful seasons with the St Paul Rangers of the CPHL Andrea would finally get his shot at the NHL the following year. The years and years of hard work and dedication had finally paid off. He had earned his shot to play in the show! Andrea made his NHL debut in the 1965-66 season, skating in four NHL games scoring one goal and one assist. It would take Andrea two more years and expansion to skate on NHL ice once again.
Andrea played with the Pittsburgh Penguins from 1967 to 1969 before moving on to the California Golden Seals and the Buffalo Sabres where his memorable journey in the NHL would come to an end. Andrea finished his NHL career with 31 goals and 49 assists in 150 games. Andrea went on to play 149 games in the WHA with the Cleveland Crusaders before retiring from the professional ranks in 1974-75 with the Cape Codders of the NAHL.
The natural athlete from small town Cape Breton skated his way to hockey’s highest level in perhaps its greatest era. Paul Andrea blazed a trail for others to follow in doing so inspiring the next crop of players from the Maritimes to believe anything is possible.
Chapter 4 From the Pond to the Pros: Lowell MacDonald’s Incredible Journey to the NHL
Lowell MacDonald’s journey in the game of hockey started on frozen ponds of his hometown of Thorburn, Nova Scotia; specifically, five ponds that were in play back home in the cozy coal mining town. The kid skated in an era that very few ever could imagine playing in. “There wasn’t a rink in Thorburn, I played most of my hockey on the ponds,” MacDonald said proudly.
“People would say you must have played a lot of pond hockey because you’re such a great skater. I would always tell them that was the only place that I could play.”
MacDonald couldn’t play in neighboring New Glasgow at the time because the town couldn’t take on any more players from the other small communities. Luckily for MacDonald, the weather was conducive to playing pond hockey or he may never have realized his dream or just how far the game would have taken him. It was the pond or nothing back then and Lowell MacDonald wouldn’t change it for the world. “I was a pond hockey player until I went to Hamilton to play junior hockey.”
MacDonald had a stellar junior career playing with the likes of Pit Martin and Paul Henderson and in his final year in junior with the Hamilton Red Wings captured the Memorial Cup. MacDonald fondly remembers playing a series of showcase games with the Boston Bruins around the Maritimes after his first year of junior hockey.
“We went around the Maritimes in one of those barnstorming things,” he recalls. “There I was just seventeen years old playing with Willie O’Ree, Fleming Mackell, Forbes Kennedy and Parker MacDonald.”
From those days in the old OHA, he would skate all the way to the National Hockey League and the storied Original Six, making his NHL Debut in 1961-62 with the Detroit Red Wings.
“It was a dream come true to play during that time,” MacDonald said proudly. “Let me tell you, there’s no question I was overwhelmed. When you step on the ice with Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Red Kelly and Terry Sawchuck and so on, I was overwhelmed and didn’t do as well as I should have.”
“As a kid growing up in a small coal mining town with a thousand people at the most and all of sudden being in a situation that you dreamed about and all of sudden it’s come true. I just don’t think I was ready for the excitement,” MacDonald went on to say.
He may have only played one game that season, but the kid from Thorburn had made it to hockey’s highest level. “It was a great thrill to play during that time, but like I said I was overwhelmed by it,” MacDonald confessed.
MacDonald is one of only a select few Maritimers to lay claim to playing undoubtedly the best and toughest era of the game. To crack an NHL roster during that time was almost impossible.
“I came home after my first year in Hamilton because I was so homesick,” admitted MacDonald. “Three years later, I’m thrown in with the big guys, guys that I grew up idolizing as a kid never thinking that you might never get that opportunity. There were very few of us Maritimers playing in the NHL during those days.”
MacDonald would go on to play 46 more games for the Red Wings over the course of three seasons, before being picked up by the Maple Leafs. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t don the Blue and White due to some injury woes but had two very productive years playing in Tulsa in the old Central Professional Hockey League before getting a call from an old teammate that changed his career forever.
“Red Kelly called me to tell me that he and LA Kings were going to draft me,” MacDonald recalls.
By that time the Original Six era gave way to expansion and that’s when MacDonald’s career took off. “That was another dream, but to go all the way to Los Angeles to play hockey was a different sensation,” explained MacDonald.
By that time the MacDonald’s already had started their family and had two young boys Lowell Jr, and Lane MacDonald would play two seasons with the Kings before moving on to Pittsburgh.
MacDonald is quick to downplay the notion that he was a trailblazer, but you don’t have to spend much time talking with him to realize how proud he is of his roots and the next generation of Maritimers playing in the National Hockey League.
“Some of these Maritimers playing the game now are absolutely incredible especially the one playing with my old team in Pittsburgh,” MacDonald observes. “Sidney (Crosby) is probably as good of a player that I have seen. To me he reminds me of Gretzky, he sees ice and anticipates the game so well. Now you have McKinnon and Marchand and it just goes on and on with the number of Maritimers that are playing. To us it’s a big thrill to see.”
“It’s hard to get the Maritime blood out of your system,” said MacDonald who still spends summers in New Glasgow with his wife Joyce. Lowell MacDonald’s memories of playing the game he loved on the ponds and under the bright lights of the NHL during its finest era are still as vivid as ever. And though times may be changing, no one will ever forget those select few Maritimers, like MacDonald, that blazed the trail to the NHL.
Chapter 5 The Hard Way: Gerry “Red” Ouellette’s Journey to the Original Six
Gerry “Red” Ouellette played in an era of the game that was defined by grit, toughness and skill.
The “honest player” from Grand Falls, New Brunswick played the game the right way, taking the road less travelled all the way to the bright lights of the National Hockey League.
“Being from a small community it really came as a surprise to me,” Ouellette said of getting the opportunity to play in the NHL during the Original Six era. During that era of the game everything was earned, nothing was taken for granted and the competition was fierce.
“I only had one year of Junior B experience and had never played a Junior A game before playing in the old EPHL,” explained Ouellette.
“Being invited to the Bruins Training Camp was nerve racking at the time,” confessed Ouellette.
Did Ouellette ever think he would make it to the NHL at that time? “No,” Ouellette said with no hesitation. “You always play the game and watch the big boys like Howe, Beliveau, and Rocket and people like that on TV, but to be honest with you I just said oh my God what is it, but it was a great experience,” said a reflective Ouellette who still works out every day at the tender age of 83.
“It was an education that cost me very little,” Ouellette said of his time in the National Hockey League. His time at hockey’s highest level continues to influence and impact his life.
“Having been there and what it has done for me in a career and things that I had to do back then like discipline are still helping me today,” confessed Ouellette of making the NHL. “It was a dream come true. When a rookie goes to a training camp when there (were) only six teams some of the older guys say ‘oh that young fellow isn’t going to get my job. Bucyk , Boivin and McKenney went out of their way to help me,” Ouellette went on to explain proudly. The hard-nosed competitor cut his teeth in the old Eastern Professional Hockey League where he played two seasons for the Kingston Frontenacs. Ouellette was a highly skilled gritty two-way player that had a knack for finding the net. The northern New Brunswick native put up impressive numbers in the EPHL before getting the call from the Boston Bruins in 1960-1961.
Ouellette played along side fellow New Brunswicker – and fellow “Original 6 NHLer” – Willie O’Ree during his brief, but very memorable time with the Bruins.
“Having the opportunity to play with Willie and having two guys from the province of New Brunswick play in the NHL when there were only six teams was quite special,” Ouellette explained. Ouellette played thirty-four games for the B’s lighting the lamp five times and adding four assists, before the unthinkable happened.
Unfortunately, Ouellette’s season was cut short by emergency appendectomy surgery in January of 1961. “Things were going really well at the time,” Ouellette said of his time in Boston before the incident.
“It came right after practice,” Ouellette remembers. “They rushed me to the hospital for an emergency operation. From there the team didn’t look like it was going to make the playoffs so the General Manager called me in when I was able to skate again and said that they wanted me to go down and help the Frontenacs get into the playoffs. Mr Patrick said that the following year I would get a good crack at playing with the Bruins.”
“It’s 2020 and I’m still waiting for the phone call,” Ouellette said with the laugh.
November 3, 1960 will be a date that Ouellette will never forget. Ouellette fired a shot past legendary netminder Terry Sawchuk, for his first NHL goal. Ouellette’s first NHL game in Detroit was a very memorable one on many levels.
“We called Gordie at the time Mr Elbows, so it was my first shift and I went into the corner and someone hit me into the boards and probably could have killed me, but I remember coming off the boards and I looked back and him smirking at me and saying ‘welcome to the league kid.’” Ouellette’s interactions with Howe only got better as the game went on.
“With about two minutes left in the second period, I got a breakaway from the blue line in and I’m still shaking,” admitted Ouellette. “I scored, and I proceeded to go around the net, he must have known it was my first because he flipped it out of the net. I thought Milt Schmidt who was coaching at the time would make some line changes, but he never did. I go back to line up for the face off and feel a tap on my left pad.”
“I was still shaking at the face off circle, I looked up and who’s next to me, but number nine Gordie himself. I can still feel his stick touch my left knee. He said ‘nice goal young fellow’,” Ouellette still has that puck on display.
Ouellette never returned to the NHL, but went on to play professionally for another eleven seasons after making his NHL debut.
Ouellette left his mark at every stop along the way, epitomizing the word “leader” wherever he went. He had tremendous success with the Buffalo Bisons, where he served as team captain when the Bisons went on to capture the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Championship in 1970.
The Bisons folded in 1970 when the NHL Sabres began play. The following season Gerry joined the Omaha Knights of the Central Hockey League, where he captained that team to the Adams Cup. After the 1970-71 season Ouellette returned to his native New Brunswick and played on the Hardy Cup winning Campbellton Tigers. He later coached the Tigers to two more Hardy Cup victories in 1977 and 1988. 34 NHL games, but a lifetime of hockey memories.
Gerry “Red” Ouellette reached hockey’s highest level in a time that only a select few every dreamed of.
Through it all Red Ouellette never forgot his roots and the value of giving back to the game he loved.
Chapter 6 Game Changer
William O’Ree was born on October 15, 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
The youngest of thirteen children Willie grew up idolizing his siblings, but was also eager to blaze his own unique path in life and sport. William O’Ree’s inspirational journey in sport would change the game of hockey forever.
Willie O’Ree’s grandparents came to Canada from the United States through the Underground Railroad to escape the horrors of slavery. Their journey to freedom would eventually lead them to the New Brunswick capital. Growing up as a minority in any city or province was fraught with challenges during that era. It was a different time. It was a different world. O’Ree’s family was one of only two black families that lived in Fredericton during that time. Harry O’Ree, Willie’s father was a civil engineer who worked in the city’s road maintenance industry. Rosebud and Harry introduced their children early on, to the value and importance of sport. Willie O’Ree instantly fell in love with the game of hockey.
O’Ree started playing the game at three years old and was playing organized hockey in the city by five. He honed his skills for hours on end on the family’s backyard rink and at the local school rink. Frozen feet and numb fingers never deterred O’Ree’s passion for the game. O’Ree wrote in his autobiography, Hockey’s Black Pioneer, that color was never an issue on those early rinks. The color of skin never mattered when you were on the ice playing the game you loved.
“The fact that I was black never came up when we played as kids,” he recalled. “You could have been purple with a green stripe down the middle of your forehead, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was only later, when I became older, that I learned what “color barrier” meant.”
The dream to play at hockey’s highest level was alive and well. No barrier could ever stop Willie O’Ree.
By the time Willie O’Ree was 15 years old he was playing for the Fredericton Falcons in the New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association. Over the next three years, O’Ree progressed through the Fredericton hockey system putting in time with the Fredericton Merchants of the York County Hockey League and the Fredericton Capitals of the New Brunswick Senior Hockey League. After a season with the Junior Capitals, O’Ree made a step up to the senior ranks for a full season in 1953–54. While with the Fredericton Capitals, O’Ree played in the Allan Cup tournament, where he scored seven goals in seven games.
At 19, O’Ree realized he would have to move away from his beloved hometown to further his career in hopes of one day reaching his dream to play in the National Hockey League. In the 1954–55, he joined the Quebec Frontenacs of the Quebec Junior Hockey League, where he had 27 goals and 17 assists for 44 points in 43 games. The following season O’Ree joined the Kitchener Canucks of the Ontario Hockey Association when the unthinkable happened; he was struck in the face by a puck suffering a broken nose and cheekbone. The incident caused O’Ree to lose roughly 95 percent of the vision in his right eye.
His lifelong dream was in jeopardy. Doctors advised him to stop playing, but the high scoring winger was back on the ice within two months. For the next several years Willie O’Ree and those close to him had to protect a secret. According to NHL bylaws the league forbade players blind in one eye from competing.
Regardless, the O’Ree was determined as ever to make the NHL.
To compensate for his blindness while playing left wing, O’Ree had to turn his head far over his right shoulder. In that era of the game, playing on your off wing was never imagined, hockey purists would never allow it. After only one year in Ontario, O’Ree returned to Québec where he starred for the famed Quebec Aces of the QHL.
The Bright Lights
After a stellar season in 1956-57 and another strong showing the following season,
Willie O’Ree finally received the call he had been waiting for his entire life. He would finally get the chance to live out his childhood dream with the Boston Bruins.
It should be noted that this was less than 11 years after Jackie Robinson made history by breaking the long standing and, sadly, long protected color line in major league baseball. Resistance to this type of change was still very obvious. Perhaps one of the most telling signs of this resistance is the fact that while O’Ree would break this critical social barrier with the Bruins two full years before the city’s MLB club, the Red Sox would accomplish the same. Much of the adversity that O’Ree was insulated from in Fredericton would rise to the surface in the ensuing years as he wound his path to the NHL, making this achievement all the more remarkable.
The Bruins were set to face their archrivals the Montreal Canadiens. It seemed only fitting that O’Ree would make his NHL debut in the mecca of Canadian hockey, the famed Montreal Forum. On January 18, 1958, the game changed forever, the day Willie O’Ree broke hockey’s color barrier. O’Ree and the Bruins would skate to 3-0 victory that night, but the greatest victory that night was felt off the ice.
Willie O’Ree’s courageous and inspirational journey to the NHL paved the way not only for other Maritimers, but for all minorities dreaming that anything is possible when it comes to the game of hockey. O’Ree would only play two games for the B’s that season and would have to wait another three seasons before becoming an NHL regular with B’s playing 43 games in 1960-61.
O’Ree would never return to the NHL, but his impact and legacy will live on. The proud New Brunswicker went on to play 14 more years of hockey with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens of the Eastern Professional Hockey League, the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League, the New Haven Nighthawks of the American Hockey League, and the San Diego Mariners of the Pacific Coast League.
A Lasting Legacy
In 1998, O’Ree became the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and an ambassador for the NHL Diversity program. Since that time, he has traveled throughout North America to promote grassroots hockey programs, with a focus on serving economically disadvantaged children.
In 2003, O’Ree was named the Lester Patrick Trophy winner for his outstanding service to hockey in the United States and in 2010 he received the Order of Canada for his outstanding service to youth development and promoting hockey within North America.
O’Ree also received the Order of New Brunswick in 2005 and was named an honored member of the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 1984.
In 2018, Willie O’Ree received hockey’s highest honor; induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In total Willie O’Ree suited up for 45 NHL games; 45 NHL games in hockey’s toughest era. In that era of the game everything was earned, nothing was taken for granted and the competition was fierce. Willie O’Ree battled and endured discrimination and racism throughout his journey in the game to live out his childhood dream.
45 NHL games, but a lifetime of inspiration. 45 NHL games that changed the game of hockey forever.
A Maritime hockey legend, an amazing role model, and a hero to so many, Hockey’s greatest ambassador, Willie O’Ree.