Making things official this past Tuesday, the NHL’s Hall of Fame will be welcoming former Boston Bruins winger and the first black player to appear in an NHL game Willie O’Ree into their ranks. While having a respectable 22 year playing career while being legally blind in one eye, O’Ree will be entering the Hall of Fame under the “Builder” category which is defined as “coaching, managerial or executive ability, or ability in another significant off-ice role, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general.”
“To me, I didn’t know I was breaking the color barrier until the next morning when I read it in the paper,” said O’Ree to NHL.com. “When I stepped on the ice on Jan. 18, 1958, we were playing the Montreal Canadiens in Montreal. We beat the Canadiens 3-0, then we got on the train and went to Boston. The Canadiens beat us 5-3 and then I left. I was just there for the two games.”
While O’Ree may get a humbled laugh out of being called the Jackie Robinson of hockey, he can still admit that he was a part of a cause bigger than himself. Just playing as the sole African-American opened the eyes of many kids in a variety of minority groups to their own unlimited potential. Even after his playing days had concluded, O’Ree continued spreading his influence becoming the director of youth development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force among many other endeavors.
“Willie O’Ree has devoted his life to our sport and our young people, to diversity and inclusion,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement. “His words of encouragement, and the life lessons he has taught, have inspired thousands not only to play hockey but to incorporate our game’s values and ideals into their lives. We marvel at Willie’s strength and his courage, at his willingness to blaze a trail for future generations of players, and we are honored by his continuing presence as a role model, mentor and ambassador for our sport.”
Willie O'Ree is a Hockey Hall of Famer.
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) June 26, 2018
“Willie means a great deal to our city,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to NHL.com. “This is history in the living right here…it’s an incredible message to our young people. When I talked to the young people in the front row [of the press conference] – everyone knows Jackie Robinson, everyone knows Barack Obama, everyone in Boston knows Willie O’Ree, but I think his story needs to be told around the country.”
While already a member of the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame and the Breitbard Hall of Fame, O’Ree’s career seems to have come full circle getting in to the Hockey Hall of Fame just 60 years after he broke the NHL’s color barrier. However, no matter how many accolades he adds to his resume, O’Ree still celebrates his journey and the impact of it the most.
Becoming the second man of color in NHL history to win an All-Star MVP award,Philadelphia Flyers star Wayne Simmonds told The Undefeated “O’Ree’s story has been an inspiration. He went through a lot. You can’t help but admire what he did.”.
Looking up to Jackie Robinson in his childhood years, O’Ree likely would never put himself on the same stage as Robinson, but ask anyone who’s known him and they’ll say that’s exactly where he belongs.