(Photo Credits: Black Heroes)
By: Liz Rizzo | Follow me on Twitter @pastagrl88
A pioneer in the NHL, Boston Bruins Willie O’Ree reflected recently on what Black History Month meant to him and to the sport of hockey. O’Ree broke ground in 1958 when he became the first black player to play in the NHL. In a recent essay that he wrote for NHL.com, O’Ree reflected on the importance that hockey is really for everyone:
Black History Month has always been special to me.
When I came aboard the NHL in 1998, my interest was to be involved in the youth development program, and Lou Vairo from USA Hockey and Bryant McBride hired me and I started with the diversity program. At that time, there were only approximately four or five programs. Now we have 26 throughout North America with 40 program centers and my specific duties are to travel around to these programs, do clinics, try and get as many boys and girls interested in playing hockey, let them know there is another sport that they can play if they want to. I talk at numerous schools — elementary, middle, junior high, high schools — junior colleges, boys and girls clubs, juvenile detention facilities, YMCAs, YWCAs, anywhere there are boys and girls.
He played 45 games for the B’s and posted four goals with ten assists. His debut for the Bruins, however, drew little publicity at the time, despite being the first black player in the league.
(Photo Credits: Postmedia Network)
“I was expecting a little more publicity. The press handled it like it was just another piece of everyday news. I didn’t care much about publicity for myself, but it could have been important for other blacks with ambitions in hockey. It would have shown that a black could make it.
He went back to the minors after playing two games in Boston. He did play 43 games for the Bruins during the 1960-1961 season before returning to the minors. There he played 14 seasons prior to retiring in 1979. However, O’Ree’s work was not done. As mentioned in the beginning of the article, O’Ree would return to the NHL in 1998 as the diversity ambassador. He would also be instrumental with the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force which is now known as Hockey Is For Everyone.
For O’Ree, seeing children of every color have the opportunity to play hockey is what he has been working towards.
(Photo Credits: FRED LUM)
I have seen the growth over the past 20 years and it’s even growing more now. There are more boys and girls playing hockey today than ever before — and I mean, not only white boys and girls, but more black kids and more girls playing hockey today than ever before. It’s growing and it’s going to continue to grow.
During his time in the NHL, O’Ree, who is legally blind in one eye, would face many obstacles such as racial slurs, prejudice, and bigotry (mainly from opposing teams and fans). But he wouldn’t let that deter him as he continued to make strides. Today, O’Ree can see the slow change and has met players who have thanked him for opening the door for those of color to play in the league. For the children who have faced similar prejudices, O’Ree has this to share:
I want to say you have to keep doing what you’re doing. And just stay focused on what you want to do. These remarks that are directed toward the players — I just can’t understand these people because they’re either racist or they’re ignorant. I don’t think any educated person would make comments like that.
(Photo Credits: Huffington Post)
It would be 16 years after O’Ree debuted before another black player would play in the league when Michael Marson joined the Washington Capitals (who were a first-year team) on Oct. 9, 1974. Today, the league has 25 active black players.. It’s hard not to see the impact that Willie O’Ree has had on the game of hockey and for kids all over the country. He would finally be recognized in 2018 when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The NHL will continue to celebrate Black History Month and fans will have the opportunity to learn more when The American Legacy Black Hockey History Tour visits six arenas. The mobile museum will make its debut in New York. The Rangers will host the museum before it heads out to visit the New Jersey Devils, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals. The museum will also travel to schools and local rinks. O’Ree’s jersey will be on display as fans get to learn more about the 200-year history of black achievement in hockey.
I’m just so glad that I have had the opportunity to be involved in the Hockey Is For Everyone program. I really feel that I have made a difference over the 20 years. You know, it was hard. But good things take more time than others. Change takes time. But it’s getting easier. It’s still going to take a long time.
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