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Willie O'Ree Day: Moving, Memorable

by Tom Halkin / Boston Bruins

Boston, MA -- Saturday was a very special day at the TD Banknorth Garden. Yes, the B's did bring the sellout crowd to their feet with a rousing 4-3 shootout victory. However, the most important circumstance the 17,565 fans on hand witnessed was the celebration of a true hockey legend -- Willie O'Ree.

50 years ago, on Friday the 18th, O’Ree made hockey history when in 1958 the
Fredericton, New Brunswick native broke the color barrier in the NHL and became the first black player to play a regular season National Hockey League game.

Though O’Ree did not contribute to the score sheet on that night, or the next, he scored a even bigger goal for the sport, paving the way for minority players like Jarome Iginla, Mike Grier, and Kevin Weekes, just to name a few. And he did return to the Bruins during the 1960-1961 campaign, scoring 4 goals and adding 10 assists in 43 games.

Saturday, the team that first gave him a shot honored the 72 year-old.

The Bruins paid tribute to O’Ree for his dedication and commitment to the game of hockey - O’Ree is currently working with the NHL as director of youth development for the NHL’s Diversity program - but it was O’Ree himself who praised the Bruins organization, including his former teammates, for their support.

“Boston has always held a special part in my heart,” O’Ree said.  “I’m just so thrilled, and so honored, and grateful and I believe that I have been blessed to be here and be a part of this, not just the team, but to be part of the organization.”

The festivities started at 11:00 a.m., with a special ceremony in The Sports Museum on the fifth floor of the Garden. There, a crowd of nearly 100 guests, including family members, friends, former teammates, media, and Bruins staffers gathered to fete O'Ree.

Delaware North Companies - Boston president John Wentzell led the introductions, and then invited the executive director of The Sports Museum, Rusty Sullivan, to talk a little about the exhibit before the museum’s curators unveiled the display.

The large glass case was filled with photographs and news clipping of the former forward. Mr. O'Ree donated most the items, along with his number 22 jersey. Included in the stirring display was a large painting of O’Ree rendered by Mac McDermott who happens to be the former official artist of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Poster sized replicas of the beautiful painting were handed out to all fans in attendance.

Afterwards Willie spoke briefly, thanking all his guests from coming and the Bruins for the “overwhelming display.”

“I’m kind of at a loss for words,” O’Ree said to the crowd. “I shouldn’t be with all the speaking I’ve been doing, but this is a very, very, special day.  I feel blessed; there are no words to describe it.”

The crowd then moved onto Banners restaurant for a lovely brunch reception. At the center of it all was an ice sculpture replica of the O'Ree 50th Anniversary logo that was prominent on the ice behind both nets on the Garden ice and on the half-boards.

At Banners, guests ate and mingled before former Bruin and Director of Development for the Boston Bruins Foundation, Bob Sweeney, took the podium to introduce some of the more distinguished guests including former O’Ree teammates, the mayor of Fredericton, Brad Woodside, whose city council has just decided to name a rink in Willie’s name, and of course the O’Ree family.

Next on the podium was Bill Daly, the deputy commissioner of the NHL.  

Daly discussed the privilege of knowing Willie through his work with NHL Diversity (O'Ree rejoined the NHL in 1998) and congratulated O’Ree on his accomplishments before handing the microphone over to Paul Kelly, executive director of the NHL Players Association.

Kelly announced that the NHLPA would be donating $10,000 in Willie's name to S.C.O.R.E. Boston, one of the programs that O’Ree’s efforts have helped. S.C.O.R.E. Boston's goal is to promote and develop the sport in underprivileged areas of Boston. During the second intermission the Bostonians took the ice for a mini-game against Ice Hockey of Harlem -- another of the programs that has been assisted by Willie's efforts.

Sweeney got back on the mike to talk more about O’Ree’s “commitment, passion, and courage,” then turned it over to Willie himself again. He then again thanked everyone for coming, with a special thanks going out to Bryant McBride, former NHL Vice President.

O’Ree then headed down to the ice for the ceremonial puck drop, where he was introduced through by the public address announcer and a short video clip. O’Ree received a standing ovation from the Garden crowd, and stick salutes from both team’s benches. And before dropping the puck, he posed for pictures with Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr, and a few young friends from S.C.O.R.E. Boston.

The commemoration continued during the first intermission when O’Ree and family, former Bruins teammate Johnny Bucyk, and Kelly, took the ice to speak to the fans.  Bucyk talked of O’Ree’s arrival in the Bruins locker room before moving onto Willie’s contributions and achievements, and Kelly presented O’Ree with a commemorative hockey stick.

O’Ree then spoke, relaying to the garden crowd what he had told his friends earlier. “This is a very special time in my life,” he said. “There are no words to describe it.”

He then thanked everyone again for their support, especially his former coach and Bruin legend Milt Schmidt, and his former GM Lynn Patrick.

Then as Willie spoke to the NESN crew during the second intermission, his prodigies, the hockey teams from S.C.O.R.E. Boston and Hockey in Harlem took the ice for a very well played mini-game.

“I think the programs that I’m involved with now are giving kids the opportunity to play a sport that they never had an opportunity to play before,” said  O’Ree.  “There are more kids playing hockey today than ever before.  

"There are more rinks being built, giving the kids an opportunity to get on the ice.”

O’Ree’s gracious demeanor throughout the entire day was enough to leave one stunned.

Even with all he has accomplished, O’Ree is still one of the most humble individuals in hockey. He continues to put others before himself, and to use his experiences to help a whole generation of people. It is easy to see why Sweeney described him with the adjective “courageous” and “committed.”

Thanks again Willie. We hope you enjoyed your day...
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