NHL players have been inspired by the first black player to make it into the league. Many are excited for Black History Month and their own personal race in February.
The “How many teams are in the nhl” is a question that has been asked for years. The answer is 31, and it’s always been the same. However, Willie O’Ree was inspired by his team to continue playing hockey despite his race. Read more in detail here: how many teams are in the nhl.
Wayne Simmonds was captivated to hockey since he was a child.
He was only permitted to join provided one particular homework assignment, on one specific figure, was completed.
“‘I want to play hockey,’ I told my parents when I was around 6 or 7 years old. And they said I had to check up Willie O’Ree first, so I did “Simmonds, a winger for the Toronto Maple Leafs, recently told ESPN. “They wanted to know why I was being given this chance to play the game at all. Growing up, I did a lot of research on Willie, and he has been my hero ever since. Without him, not just Black children, but also BIPOC children, would have been denied opportunity. Every ethnicity has a pioneer; it is the first. Willie was the first to arrive.”
Willie O’Ree wore a Boston Bruins jersey for the first time on Jan. 18, 1958, and became the NHL’s first Black player. O’Ree assured he would not be the last since he has dedicated his life to advancing the sport he loves. The Bruins will raise O’Ree’s No. 22 to the rafters in a long-awaited jersey retirement ceremony on Jan. 18, 2022, to commemorate that heritage and its iconic alum.
O’Ree will have to attend the event remotely due to an increase of COVID-19 instances throughout North America. His presence, on the other hand, could never be taken away. His legacy will go on forever, according to people he has influenced both within and outside of hockey.
The narrative of O’Ree
O’Ree is a legend in hockey, his narrative littered with triumphs over adversity in the pursuit of a single, life-changing goal. Even before the Bruins recalled O’Ree, he was hiding a terrible secret: only two years previously, the winger had been blinded in one eye after being struck by an errant puck. O’Ree would not have been eligible for his NHL debut if Boston had known. The path of professional hockey may have been altered forever.
From 1958 through 1961, O’Ree appeared in 45 games with Boston, scoring four goals and 14 points. Throughout his time there, he was plagued by violence. Being the only Black player in the NHL made O’Ree a target of savage, racially motivated assaults, ranging from vile comments hurled by teammates and spectators to targeted on-ice altercations, one of which knocked out O’Ree’s front teeth and shattered his nose.
• Bell: O’Ree’s brief but pivotal time with the Bruins • Walker: The players and events that led to O’Ree’s arrival on the scene • Yates: O’Ree breached the color barrier, but she still has a long way to go.
Even after being moved to Montreal at the end of the 1960-61 season, O’Ree remained undeterred. At the time, the Canadiens already had a strong forward corps, so O’Ree had to work hard to get the team’s attention at their Eastern Professional Hockey League training camp. Despite his good performance there, O’Ree was denied an invitation to the Canadiens’ following training camp. He would never return to the NHL.
Instead, O’Ree went on to have a great 17-year career in the minor levels, participating in 785 games and earning 639 points before retiring at the age of 43. O’Ree’s stint in the NHL was much too short, but it drove his exceptional second act, which saw him lead the push for a more inclusive hockey environment.
Since 1998, O’Ree has served as the NHL’s director of youth development and an ambassador for NHL Diversity, jobs that bring him in daily contact with the generations of players whose lives he has influenced.
O’Ree’s vision for a better hockey community has earned him a slew of medals and distinctions throughout the years, the most notable of which being his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Builder category in 2018. It’s also why, in 2008, O’Ree was awarded the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor. And it’s why O’Ree will receive the United States Congressional Gold Medal from the 116th Congress this year. O’Ree’s dedication to his mission hasn’t waned even at the age of 86.
That’s all the more astounding given that O’Ree never set out to be a trailblazer. He didn’t ask to carry that weight, to be one of just a few. But O’Ree rose to the occasion, paving the way for additional minority players in hockey. For others who have walked the route established by O’Ree, such as NHL Players’ Association agent Eustace King — O’Ree’s own longstanding representative — to publish their own story.
“There would be no Black executives in the National Hockey League if it weren’t for Willie O’Ree. There will be no Black participants in the game “According to King. “If there had been, it would have happened [much] later. But [what he went through] truly opened everyone’s eyes, and I believe he was able to manage it because of his attitude and character.”
Motivating the next generation
The photograph is displayed at Anthony Stewart’s office.
Stewart had recently been chosen by the Florida Panthers in 2003 when this photo was taken. When O’Ree came into view, he had exchanged pleasantries with commissioner Gary Bettman, put on his regular jersey and cap, and was departing the stage. Their encounter was brief but memorable, and Stewart’s wall bears witness to it.
Stewart recalls, “He was going above and above to make sure he was meeting all the minority draft selections.” “So just having him be a part of that day was incredible. It’s something I’ll never forget. I have a framed photograph of the two of us. It just demonstrated that he is concerned about the game’s growth and that he is concerned about the game of hockey. I’ve always admired athletes like Willie, who was the first.”
O’Ree was still waiting in the wings to meet NHL draftees a decade later. Following his selection by the New York Rangers in 2013, Anthony Duclair remembers a “very fantastic time” with O’Ree and fellow draftee Jordan Subban.
“To be honest, it was simply a period when I was in amazement,” Duclair added. “He’s just meant a great deal to so many individuals. I recall [we] discussing the importance of working hard and being yourself. I truly took their remarks about being yourself to heart. Don’t strive to satisfy others by pretending to be someone else. Simply said, work hard and have a good time. That was the message he sent.”
Subban was encouraged to enter the draft by his elder brother, New Jersey Devils defender P.K. Subban, who was already making waves in the NHL. But seeing O’Ree for the first time had a profound effect on the younger Subban, solidifying his thoughts about his own future prospects.
“Willie O’Ree was a fantastic role model,” stated Subban. “I saw him as a symbol of being able to achieve your goals no matter what the circumstances were. I believe there is a lot more discussion regarding some of the challenges that Black players face while playing hockey, particularly lately. When he broke the color barrier in the NHL, those hurdles were almost certainly far harsher. He’s someone I look up to for [inspiration] to keep moving ahead.”
“Every ethnicity has its first; it’s the pioneer,” Wayne Simmonds stated. “Willie was the first,” says the narrator. Getty Images/Paul Bereswill/NHLI
In that regard, Blake Bolden can witness to O’Ree’s strength. Bolden was inspired by his example to become the first Black female pro scout for the Los Angeles Kings and the first Black female player to participate in the National Women’s Hockey League.
“Willie has played an important role in my life as a Black professional hockey player,” she stated. “His comments have inspired me to be my best self and give back to the game. He is a pioneer, an inspiration, and a legend. His legacy as a symbol for real diversity, equality, and inclusion will live on beyond the sport of hockey.”
For many of his mentees, O’Ree has always been more than a handshake; he has been a terrific friend. Simmonds met O’Ree after getting picked by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2007; the two now share an agent in King and converse often. Simmonds has grown a lot as a player and as a person in the years since then, but he has remained close to O’Ree and learned a lot from him in the process.
“What I’ve absorbed the most from Willie is his humility,” Simmonds remarked. “I’ve never encountered a more modest guy after all he’s been through and experienced. After all Willie has been through as a result of the game, I don’t know anybody else who would want to give back as much as he has. Since breaking into the NHL, Willie has been a cornerstone in the hockey community and for athletes that look like me. He’s a forerunner. In my opinion, he is an astronaut. It would not be possible for me to be where I am now without Willie.”
Hockey’s Jackie Robinson.
“Willie was just as important to me as Jackie Robinson,” Simmonds remarked. “I believe he should be regarded as such across the sports world. I feel that if you don’t know where you came from, you have no idea where you’re going. With Willie, I took it to heart.”
It’s almost hard for those who have been most affected by O’Ree’s legacy not to acknowledge Robinson. Both became legends in their respective fields for accomplishing feats that no one else had, and they shifted public perceptions of what players at the greatest level should look like over time.
“Willie’s Hockey’s Jackie Robinson.,” said Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba. “Breaking down the barriers that he did, being that name, that player of color, to look to him as the first person that ever did it. He made it possible for minorities to play in the league. It just is really special, because that representation definitely matters, and to know that he did it in a different era and knowing what he went through during those times? It’s just incredible; it was a whole different time in the world.”
Stewart confesses that it was difficult for him to understand what O’Ree had through as a child until he was 18. Stewart can better comprehend O’Ree’s history now that he is 37 years old and has faced his own challenges on and off the rink.
“Imagine how difficult it must have been for Willie to be the first and only Black hockey player at the time,” Stewart added. “When you have men who have blazed the route and prepared the way for players, it puts things in perspective. He should be mentioned in the same breath as Jackie Robinson. You can see how popular Jackie is, and she should be the hockey equal of [Willie]. Willie’s narrative and hardship should be there with all the other stories when they dig up the archives of what hockey was or is 2,000 years from now.”
More than 100 non-white players have participated in NHL games in the five decades since O’Ree’s debut. The league, though, is still 97 percent white. Because of this disparity, organizations such as the NHL’s “Hockey Is For Everyone” campaign aim to disseminate a message of inclusivity. The Hockey Diversity Alliance has taken it a step further, releasing its own message to not just expose the league’s ongoing bigotry, but also to encourage white supporters to speak out.
“Now we speak about a feeling of loneliness [as a player of color] among your own squad,” Dumba remarked. “Willie, on the other hand, was the only one in the whole league. So, I think that’s a great achievement, and we’re all quite proud of him. He’s a living legend. Just for being able to break through that color barrier, he will always be a legend in every aspect. He’s been a ray of sunshine.”
To a young Mark Fraser, O’Ree was somewhat like that. Fraser was absorbing the tales of great Black sportsmen years before he was picked by the Devils in 2005, and it was these stories that would later fuel his own 200-game NHL career.
“Jackie Robinson was the subject of my first book report, which I wrote when I was quite young. And, as a Canadian kid who loves hockey and plays it, I was equally interested in learning about Willie O’Ree’s narrative “Fraser remarked. “I’ve always admired Willie’s ability to celebrate Black accomplishment and the triumph over adversity while doing it with such beauty and grace.”
Although Fraser has never seen O’Ree in person, O’Ree’s contributions to the sport have left an indelible impression on his career. Fraser, like Dumba, recalls feeling alone in NHL locker rooms and not being able to speak out against “everyday microaggressions” that still persist. At the same time, Fraser saw that he wasn’t fighting alone. To make the route ahead simpler for others, O’Ree had conquered it first.
“What he accomplished on the ice is a little part of his legacy,” Fraser said. “That struck a chord with me. If Willie was able to overcome [these challenges] in a time that I can only imagine was more difficult to be resilient and overcome than the generation in which I grew up, then that 100% empowered and encouraged me to not let a racial epithet or whatever you’re dealing with win and overcome you and to not succumb to it.”
‘We will never forget his name,’ said the group.
Bryant McBride is no stranger to overcoming obstacles. He was the first Black class president at West Point and is a famous film producer and businessman.
Nothing, however, could have prepared McBride for a simple stroll with O’Ree.
“Walking into an NHL arena with Willie O’Ree was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do,” Bryant remarked. “Because tens of thousands of people are approaching him. I can’t tell you how many people he’s met that adore him and would go to great lengths to help him. He would go to any length for so many people. Willie’s personality, his love for the game, and his desire to involve everyone are all factors. That’s how he works his magic.”
In the sports documentary “Willie,” McBride caught that spirit, and he recalls warmly on what the experience taught him about O’Ree’s legacy. He remembers traveling to O’Ree’s home and seeing his Order of Canada award on the wall, among his employee of the month trophies from his security guard job. All labor is equivalent to O’Ree. There is worth in every labor.
“What distinguishes him? It’s that, although it’s all too simple to be grumpy, Willie is all about creating chances for the future “McBride said. “He’s not turning around. He’s been through it, and although it was difficult, it was also enjoyable, and he’s spoken openly about it, but he’s moving ahead. And asking, “How can we improve it?” That has been his slogan for a long time, and it has served him well.”
Bryant McBride (left) executive produced the “Willie” documentary with ESPN’s Brian Lockhart. ESPN Images/Melissa Rawlins
It’s a voyage O’Ree seemed to be destined to do until, well, he can’t any more. Even at the peak of his career, induction into the Hall of Fame, O’Ree was left wondering, “What’s next?”
“One of the final things he said [at the Hall of Fame] was, ‘My work isn’t done; I still have plenty of things to do and achieve,’” says the Associated Press. According to King. “And he was discussing what he was doing with the NHL’s initiatives. He wanted to make sure he benefited youngsters, so he went [across the globe] to spread the word. That, in my opinion, is his enduring legacy. He did succeed in breaking the color barrier. He was the one who essentially incorporated the sport of hockey. He was also an excellent hockey player.”
That’s where O’Ree’s passion for the game began, with a true love for the game. Raising O’Ree’s jersey in Boston will honor everything that he has stood for: one guy destined to affect countless lives.
“I believe he’ll be remembered simply as a guy who, in my opinion, went through a lot just to get to the NHL, but he didn’t stop there,” Simmonds said. “He kept going, and he’s still pushing for greater equality, for other individuals who look like him to be able to play and enjoy this game.”
“His name will never be forgotten by us. I can assure you that it will never die.”
Frequently Asked Questions
How did Willie ORee impact the NHL?
A: Willie ORee is the first black player in National Hockey League history. He played right wing for the Boston Bruins and spent 15 seasons playing for them before he retired from hockey.
How did Willie ORee inspire people?
A: Willie ORee was an American-Canadian hockey player and the first black man to play in any of the four major North American professional sports leagues. He played for eighteen seasons as a forward, most notably with the Boston Bruins from 1958 until 1966.
How did Willie ORee make a difference?
A: Willie Oree is a basketball player who made a difference by becoming the first African-American head coach of an NCAA Division I college mens basketball team.
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