Willie O’Ree, NHL’s first black player, hopes for Hockey Hall of Fame call

FREDERICTON — It has been a big year so far for Willie O’Ree — full of accolades as he marked 60 years since becoming the first black player in the National Hockey League — but there’s one more honour O’Ree, his friends, and fans are hoping for.

The league will announce Tuesday if he’ll be among this year’s inductees into the Hockey Hall of Fame, as a builder.

The New Brunswick-born O’Ree said he plans to stay close to the phone, hoping to get a call from Lanny MacDonald, chairman of the Hall of Fame board.

“I’m just leaving Tuesday open,” he said, but added that he’ll have his fingers crossed.

O’Ree played just 45 games in the NHL, but his supporters say his true legacy will be the work he continues to do as diversity ambassador and the Hockey is for Everyone program to encourage children of colour to play the game.

“He is just like a pied piper. He has influenced tens of thousands of children to have a dream and to chase that dream,” said David Sansom, a close friend in O’Ree’s hometown of Fredericton, N.B., and one of the people responsible for a 76-page submission to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“Getting into the Hall of Fame — it’s long overdue,” Sansom said.

O’Ree’s first game with the Boston Bruins was in a 3-0 win over the Canadians in Montreal on January 18, 1958, but he didn’t know the significance until reading a newspaper the next day that said he had broken the NHL’s colour barrier.

“It was a nice feeling. I just happened to be playing and just happened to be black,” he said.

He would play just one more game with the Bruins that season.

O’Ree would return to the Bruins for the 1960-61 season, playing a total of 45 games in the NHL — scoring four goals and 10 assists — all while keeping a secret that would have kept him out of the league. He was blind in one eye.

O’Ree left Fredericton at the age of 17 to play junior hockey with the Quebec Frontenacs, and the next year he moved to Kitchener, Ont. It was during that second year in junior that he had an unfortunate accident.

“There was a slapshot, and I’m on the ice in front of the net. A ricochet came up and the puck struck me in the eye. I lost 97 per cent vision in my right eye. I was out of action for about six weeks,” he said.

Following his stint within the Bruins, O’Ree played in other leagues for teams in Ottawa, Los Angeles and San Diego — where he continues to live.

Now, at the age of 82, O’Ree serves as the NHL’s diversity ambassador, and for the last 20 years he has been going to schools and elsewhere to speak to young people as part of the Hockey is for Everyone initiative.

O’Ree said it’s overwhelming to know there’s a chance he could get into the Hall of Fame.

“It would mean a lot. Being selected to the Hall of Fame is like the top of the cake. I don’t think you can go any farther than that,” he said.

“I’m just very pleased with my work and the things I’ve accomplished working with the National Hockey League and the Hockey is for Everyone program.”

O’Ree said he’s pleased that so many more children of colour are playing the game, and has followed the progress of many he has mentored.

“For example Gerald Coleman, who was with the Chicago Hockey is for Everyone program back in 1997. He was a goaltender and wanted to play in the NHL. Just a skinny, little 13 year old kid. I had him for several clinics,” O’Ree said.

“He set his goals and he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning and played in the NHL. That’s just one example of the opportunities and an example of the things you can do if you feel strongly in your heart and in your mind. If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Sansom said it’s that can-do attitude that has gotten O’Ree so many supporters who wrote letters to be included in the Hall of Fame submission.

Among them: Karl Subban, whose five kids include sons P.K. (Nashville Predators), Malcolm (Las Vegas Golden Knights) and Jordan (AHL Utica Comets).

“Willie stepped on the ice with the Boston Bruins in 1958, the year when I was born, and made hockey history. He is a pioneer and a trailblazer. Willie achieved in the face of adversity. He changed the game and he changed society and he changed minds,” Subban wrote.

“Willie O’Ree’s story must not be forgotten. He has made it possible for my boys to have the NHL dream and to believe they could achieve it. He changed hockey which is now for everyone. Hockey needed him and so does the Hockey Hall of Fame. The time is right!”

A group of O’Ree’s friends plan to gather at a Fredericton restaurant Tuesday to watch the Hall of Fame announcement on television, with the hope of hearing O’Ree’s name on the list.

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