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HHOF inductee Willie O’Ree helped build hockey for everyone

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We all know about how he broke the colour barrier, but he also laid a foundation that changed hockey forever.

NHL, Tampa Bay Lightning Team Up For Florida Hockey Day
Willie O’Ree (R) and Tony McKegney speak with kids of the ‘Bolts’ hockey team during the Florida hockey day at the Daytona Ice Arena on March 6, 2010
Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images for NHL

On Monday, Willie O’Ree will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in a ceremony in Toronto, and tonight, the 2018 inductees will be honoured before the Leafs meet the Devils on the ice. On Sunday, Grant Fuhr will captain one of the teams in the HHOF Alumni game. He’ll have Angela James on his team.


Always the first

“When I went to Quebec (Frontenacs of the Quebec Junior Hockey League) the first year (1954-55), Phil Watson was the coach. He said, ‘Willie, you know there are no black players in the NHL. You could be the first. You have the skills, you have the ability.’ When I went to Kitchener (in 1955-56), (coach) Jack Stewart told me the same thing. When I turned pro with the Quebec Aces (in 1956-57), (general manager) Punch Imlach told me the same thing. It started to register with me. That gave me the extra confidence I needed.”

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Q Your family was one of just two black families in Fredericton. What was it like growing up there?

A It was good. Ninety-nine percent of my friends were white. Playing rugby, playing baseball, I was the only black player-but I was just another player.

Q Did your brothers play hockey?

A My older brother Richard was my mentor. He used to take me into the boards quite hard. Sometimes tears would come to my eyes. I’d say, “Brother, why are you hitting me so hard?” He’d say, “If you plan on playing in the NHL, you’ll be hit a lot harder than this.”

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O’Ree speaks about his past and his work now:

Willie O'Ree Anniversary Special - Part 2

"I'm very honored and very pleased that I'm in the same category as Mr. Robinson." Willie O'Ree spoke with Kevin Weekes about breaking the color barrier in the NHL.

Posted by NHL Network on Thursday, January 18, 2018

O’Ree takes what his brother gave him and gives it to others

What Richard did that was so special was he allowed me to take these racist slurs — slurs that otherwise might have dispirited me as a young player, haunted me and shamed me out of pursuing my dream — and flip them into an important lesson about my personhood. Richard taught me to understand that the ignorance built into those slurs was, among other things, ignorance to my value as an individual. And he ingrained in me a principle that I would carry with me up through this very day: that hockey is for everyone — and that “standing out” is a beautiful thing.

He gave me permission to live my life.

And I did.

And now I’m working to make sure that other kids live theirs.

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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.”

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O’Ree at a ball hockey rink named in his honour:

Back then and right now

Every now and then, when I’m reminiscing about my career, someone will ask me about the racist remarks that people would make to me “back then.” And when they do, my first thought is always the same: What do you mean, “back then”?

If by “back then” they mean “a few weeks ago,” then I have just the story for them.

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“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,” [Karl Subban wrote in a letter to be included in the submission to the HHOF].

“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!”

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All of these years later — people still, to this day, will come up to me and say, “I didn’t know black kids played hockey.” And when they do, I’ll crack that same smile I cracked to Jackie back in 1949.

And then I’ll turn to them slightly, raise my voice just a little, and say the only word that anyone discovering this game should ever have to know:

“Yup.”

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