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Willie O’Ree’s legacy grows as hockey expands its roots




When Boston Bruins president Cam Neely told Willie ORee last month that the team would make him only the twelfth player in history to get his number retired, the former NHLer was taken by surprise.

“I didn’t know the words for that for a few seconds,” O’Ree recalled, speaking to reporters. And I said, I’m overwhelmed and thrilled to have my Bruins jersey hung in the rafters.

ORees number 22 will chair TD Garden as a monument to his becoming the first black player in NHL history on January 18, 1958. It took longer than necessary, but hockey is finally starting to really recognize ORee and his accomplishments.

But for Oree and those who have come after him, there is still a long way to go.

Willie O'Ree
In this November 23, 1960 file photo, 25-year-old left wing Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the National Hockey League, warms up in his Boston Bruins uniform before a game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York.

AP / ap

Tonight I am here to tell you that we are not ready yet. Because the work is not finished, “he said at his 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony.” We have to break down and tear down barriers. Opportunities to give.

The Bruins originally planned to retire O’Ree’s number on February 18. That has now shifted to January 18, 2022, the 64th anniversary of his groundbreaking game. The NHL hopes to give O’Ree a good ceremony with fans in attendance.

His name and number will be immortalized alongside architects from the Bruins franchise such as Bobby Orr and Cam Neely. In his home country, O’Ree has been made a Member of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor. In Boston, a street hockey court in Allston bears his name.

But there is more that the ORees followers would like to see happen. One of the goals of Sydney Kinder, a leader of the Hockey players of color movement, is to see ORees number retired leaguewide.

Because I think once you see his number retired in every rafter, elevated to every rafter, you start so many conversations in multiple different cities of, Whos 22? What did he do? ”, She said. And that evokes so many interests, and that makes his name so much more common.

It would be a move similar to what baseball has done to Jackie Robinsons number 42, who is the MLB retired in 1997Kinders got pushback due to ORees stats, he only played in 45 NHL games, scoring four goals as a winger. That’s not the problem for her.

His points don’t matter, “she said.” The stats are incomparable to the change he made to not only grow the game on the ice, but also grow the game off the ice. You can currently talk to any player of color, which is both women and men. They’re going to nod to Willie ORee.

Recognition of the rankings and retirement of his number is consistent with an honor given only by the NHL another player Wayne Gretzky, The Great One of hockey.

The jersey retirement, the kink in the Hall of Fame, and other accolades aren’t all ORees’ story in hockey.

2018 Hockey Hall Of Fame Induction - Legends Classic
Willie O’Ree dons the commemorative jacket ahead of the 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame Legends Classic Game at the Scotiabank Place on November 11, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

ORee made it his mission in his post-game days to grow the game beyond its old boundaries, leading clinics and acting as the diversity ambassador for the NHLs Hockey is for everyone campaign since 1998.

That work directly impacted Kinder, who grew up playing in New York through an organization called Ice hockey in Harlem which, like ORee, works to expose disadvantaged communities to the game. O’Ree’s story was a big part of the program.

Kinder said she enjoyed playing in Harlem and was welcomed as a young black woman. But as she got older and started playing at higher levels, where there wasn’t the same diversity as when she was growing up, that feeling changed.

So when I got to my collegiate experience, I almost felt burned out by the sport because then you’re the symbolic black guy on the team, “she said.” You have to maintain some stereotypes while downplaying other stereotypes. But you also switch between codes to make sure everyone feels comfortable around you.

Despite these struggles, she has not lost her passion for the game.

As the director of the Hockey Players of Color movement, she is working to make the game more welcoming to everyone.

For hockey, that push is arguably the biggest challenge the game faces.

The challenge at the roots of hockey

Dallas Jackson didn’t even know how to skate when she started playing hockey.

Jackson, a senior captain of the Concord-Carlisle High Schools hockey team, remembers watching Bruins games on TV and being fascinated by the speed of the game and the fights.

Her parents got her involved SCORE Boston, a nonprofit dedicated to giving young players access to hockey in a city with close ties to ORee. Here she learned to skate and play the game. But more importantly, here she found community.

At SCORE, I get to see people who really look like me, ”said Jackson. Most of the employees (are) people of color, and I have had to contact them based on that, while most of the hockey programs you see are run by mostly white people. That was also very important to my family.

As hockey honors O’Ree’s achievements, it may be more important than ever to make play fairer at the youth level. Rising to that challenge may well be his true legacy.

Wendell Taylor, the president of SCORE Boston, speaks bluntly on the matter.

There are no rinks in communities of color, ”he said. I mean, I have to take the kids to Milton to skate. Let’s be very clear, there are no ice rinks in colored communities which means you have to travel to develop those skills. You must travel to places that do not belong to your community.

In hockey it is almost a given that children have to spend hours learning how to skate, let alone playing. Once you add up the cost of equipment and booking time on the ice, it’s a combination of time and money that Taylor says prevents many young people from participating.

NHL & Carolina Hurricanes Team Up for Hockey is for Everyone Clinic
Willie O’Ree talks to the Capital City Crew and the Raleigh Youth Hockey Association at a clinic, Hockey is for Everyone, sponsored by the NHL and the Carolina Hurricanes at the Cary Ice House on May 15, 2010 in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck / Getty Images for NHL)

Gregg Forwerck / Getty Images North America

In an age where specialization comes early, in an age where a parent has to choose which opportunities their child will participate in, I often see parents saying with great resources: I don’t want my child to become a hockey player. I don’t want to wake up at six in the morning and take them to the ice rink and drive to Pennsylvania and then Connecticut to Florida to play in the stinky hockey tournament. Let them play basketball. Here’s a basketball; go around the corner, “he said.” When given the opportunity to give my child, I have limited time, limited opportunities, and may not have the ability to drive them around the world. Why should I choose hockey over something that is easier to achieve, more familiar to me, more familiar to my community, and where the rewards are clearer to me?

Taylor commends the NHL and USA Hockey for the work they have done to narrow the gap somewhat and points out that the NHL Kim Davis as a league executive as a ray of hope. According to the NHL, the league and the NHL Players’ Association have contributed more than $ 100 million since 2015 through various programs aimed at growing the game. The league has also established the Youth Hockey Inclusion Committee to make the game more accessible to younger players.

Today, diversifying hockey is a critical investment for the future of games.

Hockey is a sport that is growing, but not growing as fast as we want, ”Taylor said. And this country is changing. If they don’t get a fan base that starts to resemble the rest of this country, this isn’t growing like a sport, right? So it’s about the players and the fan base … Am I going to tell you that things are moving as fast as people would like? No. But am I excited to see the initiatives that have been taken, the steps that the NHL has taken, hiring people like a Kim Davis to do this? The answer is yes. “

Even though he hung up his skates decades ago, ORee is arguably the person who is still taking some of the biggest steps in growing the game.

Bryant McBride, a former NHL manager, produced a documentary about ORee. For McBride, ORees’ life after his play days is arguably his greatest contribution to the game.

He paved a path in a very important way that was very difficult. But then, at age 61, he embarked on his second NHL career … being the Pied Piper and evangelizing the game that gave children life chances, “he said.” And in my book, that’s more important than scoring 1,000 points. . He affects lives.

McBride said ORee was on the road for six years between the ages of 61 and 83 to spread the gospel of the game to others who came after him, players such as Dallas Jackson, who wrote a piece for NESN earlier this month, that highlighted how the game has given her confidence.

It’s just something that I was all aware of in my family because we know that without Willie ORee and all of the people with him or people who came after him, the way our family learns to play hockey might not have been possible, ” Jackson said in a GBH News interview.

Despite delays due to COVID-19, ORees’ number will eventually hang over TD Garden and perhaps one day over the arenas of the NHL’s other 30 teams. But unlike a song hanging from a ceiling, ORees’s legacy is still in flux.

As folks like Dallas Jackson keep taking to the ice, the fruits of the seed ORee planted more than 60 years ago continue to bloom and maybe even multiply.

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