In 1958, Willie O'Ree broke the color barrier in the NHL when he stepped on the ice as a member of the Boston Bruins. In 1998, O'Ree took on the role of Director of Cause Marketing and Ambassador for the league's "Hockey is for Everyone" initiative focused on increasing diversity in the sport.
And last Friday, in partnership with the Columbus Ice Hockey Club (CIHC), O'Ree was in Columbus, visiting with local high school children and spreading the word about the value of hard work, the game of hockey and the opportunity for everyone to play.
"Since the CIHC started we've had about 16,000 kids participate," John Haferman, CIHC Director, told BlueJackets.com. "I would have to give Mr. O'Ree credit for over half the kids coming our way saying 'hey, we saw this, how do we get involved?' He's the only reason our program is still going, I think."
This isn't O'Ree's first visit to Columbus. He's come many times when Haferman has reached out and worked in concert with the league to bring O'Ree's message of setting goals and working hard to achieve those goals to central Ohio youth.
O'Ree's 21-year professional hockey career, which included 45 games in the NHL, is testament to his approach. He didn't just break into the game as the NHL's first black player, he did so while having vision in only one eye; O'Ree was blinded in his right eye when he was hit in the face with a puck.
"When I talk to these kids, I emphasize staying in school, getting an education and working hard. There's no substitute for hard work," O'Ree said. "If you have a handicap you can work with it. You can exceed your goal. But you have to believe within yourself, within your heart, and within your mind that you can do these things."
During his visit to four local high schools, O'Ree answered questions thoughtfully with stories from his life. And hockey was always the metaphor for the life lessons he wanted to share, including the story of the only time O'Ree thought about quitting the game - following an on-ice altercation with a Chicago player.
The two previously had run-ins that included racial remarks. This time, O'Ree had his teeth knocked out and responded by hitting his opponent over the head with his stick. That resulted in a bench clearing brawl and the assignment of 92 penalty minutes between both teams.
"As I sat in the locker room I said to myself 'you don't need this," O' Ree said. "But then I realized when I leave the game of hockey, I want to leave because I don't have the skill or ability. Not because some player was trying to get me off the ice."
And that's why O'Ree continues to take the message of hockey, which he calls "the greatest sport," and chasing one's goals to as many children as he can.
"I've conducted numerous clinics over the years and once I get these boys and girls on the ice I've never had one say I don't like this," O'Ree said. "90% of the job is done once you get them on the ice. They get interested and sometimes it's hard to get them off the ice."
In concert with Haferman and CIHC, O'Ree wants central Ohio kids to know that if they want to play hockey, there are people who are ready to help get them the training and equipment they need to try it out. It's a two-way street: the kids must stay in school and continue to get good grades.
"When these boys and girls were on the ice and they scored their first goal, you could see their eyes light up," O'Ree said. "Those moments are priceless when you watch them."
It's the gift of achievement and results that hard work can bring that keeps O'Ree motivated. Being part of programs like "Hockey is for Everyone" and working with the CIHC is what brings it to fruition.
"I've had the pleasure of coming to Columbus many times," O'Ree said. "Even before Nationwide Arena was built and the Blue Jackets were just an idea. I came here and I'd teach street hockey programs. You can tell that hockey has grown over the years.
"It's a nice feeling to talk to these kids today. I only told them the truth and the experiences I had and the experiences I had to overcome to play the sport and play as long as I did. These boys and girls can do anything they set their mind to, they really can."