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O'Ree A Vital Part of Hockey History

Bruins legend honored on 60th anniversary of breaking NHL's color barrier

by Eric Russo @NHLBruins / BostonBruins.com

BOSTON - Willie O'Ree first met Jackie Robinson when he was just 14 years old.

The New Brunswick native was in New York for a trip honoring his youth baseball team and managed to carve out a few minutes to chat with the legend by the dugout during a visit to Ebbets Field. O'Ree made sure to inform Robinson that in addition to his baseball accomplishments, he was also a hockey player.

Robinson was a bit surprised, not realizing that any black kids played hockey. It was an interaction that proved to be a memorable one.

Some 13 years later during an NAACP luncheon in Los Angeles, the two once again crossed paths. Following an introduction, Robinson - the first black player in Major League Baseball history - quickly realized that it was not their first encounter

"'Willie O'Ree - aren't you the young fella I met in Brooklyn?" Robinson asked.

It was a moment that O'Ree cherishes to this day - and one he felt important to share during a celebration marking the 60th Anniversary of his breaking the NHL's color barrier.

"He just made a big impact on me," said O'Ree, who made his NHL debut with the Bruins at age 22 on Jan. 18, 1958, becoming the league's first black player during a 3-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum.

On Wednesday, during a press conference dedicating a new street hockey rink in his honor, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said O'Ree deserves to be in the same historical category as Robinson and President Barack Obama.

"Willie means a great deal to our city," said Walsh. "This is history in the living right here…it's an incredible message to our young people. When I talked to the young people in the front row [of the press conference] - everyone knows Jackie Robinson, everyone knows Barack Obama, everyone in Boston knows Willie O'Ree, but I think his story needs to be told around the country.

"It's a great honor to be here, an honor to hear him speak about what he's done."

Video: 1958: Willie O'Ree is NHL's first black player

Walsh joined NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Boston Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs for the ceremony officially dedicating the Willie O'Ree Rink at Smith Playground in Allston-Brighton. The rink, donated by the NHL and the Bruins, will open this summer.

"A great part of a very storied franchise," said Jacobs. "Today is a proud moment for us, having Willie here, having him recognized by the National Hockey League… it is my hope that this rink will serve as a way to promote Willie's mission of introducing boys and girls of diverse backgrounds to the game of hockey."

O'Ree, who suited up for 43 games with the Bruins over two seasons and played 21 seasons of professional hockey, has served as the NHL's Diversity Ambassador since 1998. In that role, O'Ree, 82, has traveled the country to help spread the game of hockey and the league's Hockey is for Everyone initiatives.

"When you look at the number of young people that he has inspired - 120,000 since we named him Diversity Ambassador - he is truly a special person in the history of this game," said Bettman.

As part of a week-long celebration for O'Ree's 60th anniversary, the Bruins legend dropped the ceremonial first puck ahead of Boston's game with rival Montreal. The Bruins also wore commemorative Willie O'Ree patches on their jerseys, while the logo was also placed on several dasher boards and on the ice behind both nets.

"It certainly is a pleasure for me to be here in Boston," said O'Ree, who made it to the NHL despite being legally blind in his right eye, the result of being struck by a puck at a young age.

"When I came here for my first training camp in 1957 I fell in love with the city, I fell in love with the players and just had a great time."

Video: Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs reflects on Willie O'Ree

Commisioner Bettman also presented O'Ree with the score sheet from his NHL debut, while Mayor Walsh proclaimed Jan. 18, 2018 as Willie O'Ree Day in the City of Boston.

"Back when he [debuted] back in 1958, it was a whole different world than it is today," Walsh told the audience. "It was an incredible feat, an incredible accomplishment, and he set the tone for so many other young people - and many black players have come to play in the league since Willie O'Ree.

"I want you to understand the magnitude of what this guy has done to change the sport of hockey….Willie O'Ree is a Boston legend, he changed Boston for the better."

During the ceremony, O'Ree remembered back to his first game against the Canadiens and admitted that he did not realize then the impact of his debut.

"Stepping on the ice and playing my first game in the NHL it was such a thrill…I just felt good about it," said O'Ree. "I didn't know I had broken the color barrier until I read it in the paper the next day."

Sixty years later, there is no questioning the significance of O'Ree's accomplishment.

"As far as I'm concerned, Willie belongs in the Hall of Fame for a number of reasons," said Jacobs. "He's spread a message for over 20 years of growing our game. He deserves some recognition for it. Today's one small part of that in my opinion."

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