Willie O’Ree was finally selected for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Tuesdayin the “Builder” category.
This has been long overdue for O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first black player 60 years ago. O’Ree, who rejoined the league in 1996 and has been the director of the youth development and diversity ambassador, has often been deemed the “Jackie Robinson of hockey,” and rightfully so.
The 81-year–old made his debut with the Boston Bruins in 1958, getting the call to action when they needed to replace an injured player. This happened just 11 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier of the MLB with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
O’Ree, however, had an injury of his own, unbeknownst to the team. The Fredericton, New Brunswick native had been nearly completely blinded in his right eye by a slap shot suffered during his time in junior hockey nearly two years prior to his debut. That did not stop him though, as he played two games in the 1957-1958 season before playing 43 more for the Bruins in the 1960-1961 season.
O’ree has only played 45 games and has four goals and 10 assists accredited to his name. Yet, he is viewed as a superstar and pioneer for the sport of hockey.O’Ree would find himself on the receiving end of many racially charged slurs and abuse from different cities during his career, but continued to play.
Philadelphia Flyers veteran, Wayne Simmonds, is just one of many black players who credit O’Ree with their opportunity to play the sport they love, professionally. The power play threat wrote “my dream simply does not become a reality without Willie O’Ree. He’s a living hero to so many of us,” in his piece for the Players’ Tribune dubbed, “The Astronaut.”
Despite the long wait, the 2002-2003 recipient of the Lester Patrick Trophy, O’Ree, said in a release, “I am honoured to be recognized.” Willie will have to wait until November for the enshrinement. For now though, he will remain paving the way for the NHL’s future as he continues working with its Hockey is for Everyone initiative.
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Phot Credit: K.C. Alfred