BOSTON (AP) — Willie O’Ree has won many honors in his lifetime, from breaking the NHL color barrier in 1958 with the Boston Bruins to being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.
But the 86-year-old says the removal of his number 22 jersey in Boston on Tuesday will be one of the top picks.
“It was something I never dreamed of,” O’Ree said in a phone interview on Monday. “I was very lucky to be called up by the Bruins in 1958 and play with them in ’60 and ’61. And then all of a sudden to find out that my jersey is going to retire and hanging there on the rafters with the local icons and legends that are hanging there at the moment is just amazing.”
O’Ree became the first black NHL player on January 18, 1958, when he played against the Montreal Canadiens. He will become the 12th player in Bruins history to push his number to the limit.
He had planned to attend Boston’s game against the Carolinas on Tuesday, but ongoing concerns about the pandemic changed those plans. Now he will be participating practically from his home in San Diego.
“I was disappointed,” he said. “I have many friends in the Boston area and fans that I have known for many years. … As the virus continues, we just felt that for our own safety, we were not going to make the trip.”
O’Ree, originally from Fredericton, New Brunswick, played two games for the Bruins in 1957-58, spent the next two seasons with the junior team, and returned to Boston for 43 more games in 1960-61. scoring four goals and making 10 assists in 45 games. Traded to the Canadiens in 1961, he never returned to the NHL level.
Coinciding with Tuesday’s ceremony, the NHL Black Hockey History Museum is in Boston this week. This season, he will travel to 28 cities in the United States and O’Ree’s native Canada, the most cities he has visited. It was at the Bruins training center on Sunday and will stop at TD Garden before the game on Tuesday night.
The 525-square-foot museum features pioneers and historical figures such as O’Ree, as well as league founders and Stanley Cup winners. He also envisions the next generation of young stars, NHL officials, broadcasters and women in the game.
O’Ree focused on the future of the NHL after retiring from the sport. And since 1998, he has been with the NHL as a Diversity Ambassador, working to promote greater inclusion and combat the racism that still exists in the league.
O’Ree has previously said that although he was embraced by his teammates in Boston, his short time in the NHL did not go unnoticed by the racism that permeated the Jim Crow era in the US at the time.
“When I joined the Bruins in 1958, I heard racist language and abuse from fans in the stands and opposition players,” O’Ree said. “But it didn’t really bother me. And I have to thank my older brother, who was not only my brother and friend, but also my mentor and taught me a lot that I needed to know. He says, “Willie. If people can accept you for who you are, that’s it. This is their problem. Just go and work hard and stay focused on what you want to do.” And basically that’s what I did.”
O’Ree said he’s proud of the work he’s done talking to youth at hockey clinics in hopes of diversifying the sport he loves.
“I just want to be remembered not only as the first black player to play in the NHL, but as someone who wanted to connect with boys and girls and help them set goals, help them work towards their goals and feel good about themselves.” about themselves and love themselves,” he said. — I think it’s very important.
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