The importance of Willie O’Ree’s life story is not lost in 17-year-old Manu
Charbonneau’s mind. The native of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, knows full
well the story of O’Ree, the first Black player to suit up in the National Hockey League some 60 years ago.
Charbonneau knows the tale of the pain O’Ree – the Fredericton native who
is now in the Hockey Hall of Fame – endured in his fight with diversity and
inclusion in the world of professional sport. Charbonneau does not require
the fact that February is Black History Month to recall O’Ree’s plight.
But what many do not know is the tale of what Charbonneau, who now patrols
the blue-line of the Alberni Valley Bulldogs of the British Columbia Hockey
League (BCHL) in Port Alberni, B.C., has himself endured in his young
Raised by a single Caucasian mother in the small town of
St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and never having previously known his father,
Charbonneau’s world was turned upside down at the tender age of 12 when his
lone parent, Annie, tragically passed away, something he still does not
like to discuss.
Manu, a young man of colour whose full name is Emanuelson, was raised by
his elder Caucasian grandparents, Luc and Thérèse, who still reside in the
town situated just 40 kilometres outside of Montreal.
His grandparents vowed to keep their grandson involved in hockey, which
Manu shone in. His play was strong enough that he was designated an
“exceptional status player,” which allowed him to play U18 AAA for Collège
Charles-Lemoyne as a 14-year-old during the 2018-19 season, wrote his
family advisor Jonathan Lachance. Only three other players received this
status in his age group.
Manu returned to compete at the U18 level at Collège Charles-Lemoyne as a
15-year-old and played in all game situations – the power-play, he killed
penalties and was a “match-up” defenceman, added Lachance, in a letter
written to the National Appeals Committee, as the family sought a move west
to B.C. “He was arguably one of the top three most utilized players on his
Manu was also selected in the third round of the 2020 Quebec Major Junior
Hockey League Entry Draft by the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, but his
choice all along was to invest in the college route, hence the appeal to
join the Bulldogs. The move was eventually granted, and Manu shifted his
play to the BCHL as a 16-year-old, leaving behind his grandparents and the
first formative years of his life, not to mention the memories of his
He did not speak a word of English at the time, which could affect his
growth, but he learned to flourish.
“It was fun,” he says now when asked if there was an element of being
scared at the time. “It’s way different than the East Coast. It’s a pretty
nice place to live. It’s been a great experience. I wouldn’t say it was
scary moving out west. Maybe the first time I came out it was a little
stressful, but it was a good stress, it wasn’t a bad stress.”
His English is now more than understandable as he continues to blossom both
on and off the ice, playing his second campaign with the Bulldogs. He will
add another season next year before then shifting his attention to the
University of Nebraska-Omaha where he has earned a full-ride scholarship.
Manu is also rated by NHL Central Scouting as a possible pick in this
year’s Entry Draft as all signs point upward for the young man, who has
battled every inch of the way.
Of course, he’s had help in the form of Lachance and his business partner
at Will Sports Group in Quebec, Dominic De Blois. Some of the company’s
clients include Tyler Seguin, Miro Heiskanen and Thomas Chabot.
Then there is also Alberni Valley Bulldogs general manager and head coach
Joe Martin, who has had the pleasure of watching and working with the young
man, who comes in at six-foot-three and 200 pounds. That size alone
captures scouts’ attention.
But more so does his story, which he can now fully tell, in his own words,
“He didn’t sound like that when he first moved here, I can tell you that,”
says a proud Martin. “When you meet this kid, you forget he’s 17. He’s a
big kid. He looks you in the eyes and he has those big, bright eyes. He’s a
passionate player, but he’s calm and caring and a focused person off the
“He’s unique and he fits in well with our guys,” adds Martin. “You don’t
think about him as a 17-year-old and I don’t have many more similar to him.
He’s very mature and I’m guessing that’s just a by-product of how his life
Losing his lone parent at a young age and then growing up with elderly
grandparents through these difficult times dealing with COVID-19 have been
“I hope that he hasn’t been robbed of some joyful times as a kid. I can’t
say because I don’t know what he was missing before us getting him as a
16-year-old,” says Martin. “I hope not, but I know he’s a happy kid now,
focused and determined and I hope it keeps going in the right direction for
“No, it couldn’t have been easy (losing his mom), especially at that age –
12. I think he’s lucky in that Jonathan helps him quite a bit and he’s
moved in here with a good (billet) family, a really big family – the Steel
Manu lives there along with teammate and 20-year-old defenceman Ryan Nause
of New Brunswick.
“They were very helpful for me because I was French and at the start it was
way more difficult not knowing English. They set me up really well and took
care of me and I appreciate that a lot,” Manu says of the Steels, who are
business owners and community backers of sports.
“I have a lot of friends here (in Port Alberni) and it’s a pretty close
team this year, too. I’m living with Ryan Nause who is one of my best
friends on the team and we’re a good team. We’re close and the guys are
having fun at practice. Everybody’s in a good mood all the time, 24/7.”
What Manu hasn’t had to put up with is the racism that the likes of O’Ree
and others have dealt with rising through the ranks.
“There weren’t a lot of Black people back home (in Quebec), but I would say
that my friends and my buddies were really close with me and that didn’t
change anything. They treated me like I am, and I treated them like they
are,” says Manu.
“I remember at my old school there may have been three of us of colour in
the entire school and everybody treated us well, but sometimes people tried
to make jokes. That affected me sometimes, but I just tried to let them
know you could make jokes, just not in front of me, please. It was never
anything against me, but more jokes about people. Sometimes that can affect
you and I just let them know when it happened.
“I’ve heard some stories about it happening on the ice, but I’ve been very
lucky because I’ve never had it. Racism is a very sensitive subject for me.
For sure, if it ever happened to me on the ice, I would let the person
know. It would be disappointing, because at the end of the day everyone is
equal. But like I said, I’ve been lucky, it’s never happened to me. It’s OK
to become frustrated, but it’s not a subject to be talked about (or used
He knows of O’Ree’s battles in that regard, so much so that he holds a
special place for the former NHLer.
“I’ve seen (the O’Ree documentary) and they made some skates for all the
Black players in the NHL,” says Manu, referring to O’Ree’s likeness and
favourite phrase – “All I needed was the opportunity” – being printed on
custom skates made by the Bauer company that were worn by some players in
“There’s a funny story, I used to play video games and I would always put
(O’Ree) on my first line. I would get a special card for him and use him a
lot,” says Manu, who grew up a Montreal Canadiens fan, but is now a Boston
Bruins’ backer. That’s also where O’Ree played his 45 NHL games.
Manu also watches the growth of other players of colour, like K’Andre
Miller, of St. Paul. Minnesota, who plays with the New York Rangers.
“I know Miller. I’ve been watching him since he was with the national US
program and then he went to (University of) Wisconsin with Cole Caulfield
(who is now a Montreal Canadien). It was insane to watch Miller, Caulfield
and (Alex) Turcotte (a Los Angeles Kings draft pick who has played some NHL
games) together, and now he (Miller) is already in the NHL and playing in
the first pairing on one of the best teams, so I follow him a bit,” says
He’s also watched P.K. Subban, who started his career in Montreal. “I still
followed him when he went to Nashville and then the (New Jersey) Devils,”
he says, adding it’s healthy to see more and more players of colour make
Martin realizes that’s a big part of the story as well.
“I haven’t seen him have to deal with racism,” the coach says thankfully.
“We have two guys on our team of colour, and I know there are others
around. The province of B.C. and the BCHL has a lot of colour in it, with
Asian and East Indian backgrounds.”
Martin says he’s been fortunate throughout his career that he hasn’t had to
deal with such issues, but he realizes they do arise.
“Years ago, I did have a player and I didn’t hear anything directly, but I
was told something from being in another team’s community. I don’t know
what these guys hear (on the ice), but nothing has been brought to my
attention and I’m sure if it happened, our bench would react.
“Even if Manny was not a respected man in our room it still would happen,
but he’s a very respected player on our hockey team amongst his peers and I
would not be able to stop that onslaught if something (racist) happened.”
Manu describes his game as that of a solid two-way player, “who can be very
physical and a guy who is very hard to play against. And I would say I’m
more of a PK (penalty-killing) guy, that’s my specialty,” he says proudly.
He patterns his game somewhat like David Savard, a defenceman now with the
Canadiens, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Columbus Blue
Jackets, played there for 10 seasons and had a short stint in Tampa Bay
before ending up in his native Quebec.
“Just his size and the way he can play defensively, but he can also
generate offence,” says Manu.
A former Sidney Crosby fan, Manu now backs Charlie McAvoy with the Boston
“He’s kind of an underdog and not a lot of people talk about him. He’s one
of the top two defencemen in the NHL, for me. Just the way he moves. He’s a
really good athlete and a good person. I follow him on social media and
he’s always giving money to people and trying to help people during
Thanksgiving and stuff. He’s just a good guy and a good hockey player.”
Manu is a Bruins fan because of McAvoy. “I love the Bruins. The Canadiens I
still love them. They’re my back-home team. I was born close to Montreal
and since I was young everybody talked about the Canadiens.”
Now, one day he hopes they can possibly talk about him and his travels in
Mario Annicchiarico is a freelance writer based in Victoria who has
previously covered the National Hockey League’s Edmonton Oilers, as
well as the Western Hockey League.