Bryant McBride ’84 celebrates the life of a hockey pioneer with a film that’s about much more than the game
When Bryant McBride ’84 was a young boy growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, he learned the story of Willie O’Ree—and he was angry. Up until then, McBride had thought he would be the first black hockey player in the National Hockey League. Recruited to play for West Point, McBride took a PG year at Williston, then eventually transferred from West Point to Trinity, where he led his team to three ECAC championships and earned All-American honors. After getting his master’s in public administration at Harvard, McBride eventually did break barriers in the NHL: as vice president for business development, he became the league’s highest-ranking minority executive. He left that job in 2000 to become an entrepreneur and investor, “building start-ups at the intersection of sports and technology,” he explains, “where sports is a driver of acceptance.” Now living with his family in Lexington, Massachusetts, McBride’s latest venture is executive producing the documentary Willie, which premiered in April at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. The film tells the story of the trailblazing Boston Bruin, his recent induction into the Hall of Fame, and his continuing impact on the game.
Who is Willie O’Ree?
The great-grandson of an escaped slave, Willie O’Ree was an unlikely candidate to break the NHL’s color barrier in 1958: just two years before, he had been blinded in one eye by a puck, a secret only his sister knew. A native of New Brunswick, he would play 45 games in the NHL, spend 22 years in the minors, and was hired as the league’s diversity ambassador in 1994. He was inducted into the NHL’s Hall of Fame, in the builder category, in November 2018.
When you were working for the NHL in 1994, you hired Willie O’Ree to be the league’s diversity ambassador. How did all that happen?
It comes from something basic and simple. I’m a black hockey player, one of not very many. I was there at the league, and I said, I have to do something. We’ve got to diversify the sport. It’s about giving kids an opportunity to play, to overcome the barriers to entry— equipment, ice time—and the costs associated with those are high. [NHL Commissioner] Gary Bettman was very supportive, and still is to this day. He said, “Yeah, make that happen.” So I started to build these programs, with help from volunteers, and I was sitting in a skyscraper on 6th Avenue in a suit all day and they said, you know, we really need someone who can go out and spread this message, and show the league’s intent. A friend of mine, [former U.S. Olympic hockey team coach] Lou Vairo said, “We should find Willie O’Ree.” It was pre-Google, so through a friend at the FBI, we found him.
What was making that connection like?
Willie blew me away. He had retired in 1980 after playing 22 years of
pro hockey and was working as a security guard at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego. The hockey world had kind of forgotten about him. But he wasn’t like, Oh, woe is me. A good way to explain who Willie is, is this: 15 years ago, Willie got the highest civilian honor the government of Canada gives, the Order of Canada, and it hangs on the wall of his office in San Diego, right next to two plaques from when he was employee of the year at the Del Coronado. That’s who he is. Just do a great job no matter what you do. I hired him when he was 62, and he’s now 83. He’s still doing that job and doing it really well. When we put together his statistics as to how much he’s traveled in those 22 years, he’s been on the road cumulatively more than six years.
We have a strange relationship with athletes these days, where we want them to be role models, but then on issues such as race, there’s a reluctance to want to hear what they have to say. How has Willie navigated those issues?
Willie is about action. He’s about getting out there, working with kids, telling his story, and showing kids that just as you deserve a chance to play hockey, you also deserve a chance to do applied math, to do STEM, to do whatever else you want. Hockey is just the metaphor. And that’s what Willie talks about. But he also is very direct and very open about race. He talks about all the things that he went through, the names he was called, everything that happened to him, because it’s still happening today. That’s at the heart of this movie. This garbage is still happening. I don’t want to get too political, but I really feel strongly about it: we are at the point where foreign entities are pitting Americans against each other using race. Enough now. Let’s talk about race openly. Rwanda, South Africa, Germany, Canada, they all have had direct open public conversations about race. If we do not heal this as a country, shame on us. There’s an open wound that has never been addressed. I’m not smart enough to know the solutions, but I am smart enough to know we need to talk about this stuff. So this is a hockey movie, yes, in small part, but it’s also a movie about being open and direct about race, and Willie does that.
Are you seeing diversity progress in the NHL?
Absolutely. When I arrived, there was very little diversity effort in the NHL. It didn’t exist. There were two or three black players. Now there are around 30 or 40. And the league has a zero tolerance policy. When stuff happens, they deal with it quickly and effectively. There’s always more to do, and they will acknowledge that, but they’ve come up very strongly as to how they deal with this. It’s an international game. It’s one of the most diverse games there is. It’s just diversity in terms of nationalities rather than race.
Did you experience any prejudice when you were at Williston?
I had zero experiences at Williston, on the ice or anywhere else. Other times in my playing career I did, for sure, but nothing at Williston. I got to flourish there. Being able to play a sport every day—soccer, with Ray Brown, probably the best soccer coach I ever had—and then I’d leave the field and go into the Dodge Room and I’d sing with Dick Gregory. You can’t replicate that. And everything was to the highest standards—the teaching, the people, the expectations of how to treat people, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed. That’s Williston. The expectations were so high, and it became a habit to fulfill them. It was just an amazing place. In almost 35 years I have not gone more than two weeks without talking to someone from Williston. That’s the impact it had on my life. You learn as you get older that you get paid in different ways, and my work with Willie, my work making an impact on kids’ lives, doing my best to be kind of a multiplier of opportunity—I had that going into Williston, but it was definitely honed, and defined, and shaped there. So the work I’m doing now is a direct impact from that time.
You raised the money to make this movie in just hours. Why do you think the project had such appeal?
I think it’s a combination of the strength of the message and the timing of the message. We made it clear this was more than a hockey movie. This is about opportunity, perseverance, race—all encapsulated in this one earnest, humble, amazing man. He would have gotten into the Hall of Fame eventually, but he was 82 and a number of us said we have to get this in front of the Hall of Fame for Willie’s sake, so he can enjoy the recognition. It’s also a message that the game is diversifying. This is the guy that led that charge and took all of the abuse and the awful stuff that came with it by being the first. And in this environment right now, I felt it was really important.
You’ve said that hiring Willie to work for the NHL was the best thing you’ve ever done.
Other than my family, it probably is. I’ve been lucky. I’ve done some really fun things. I’ve built and sold companies, to ESPN and Sports Illustrated, and had great returns for people, but in terms of long-term impact, when I am no longer here, yeah, that’s probably the best thing I’ve done.