Students at Maxwell Elementary in Anaheim were treated to a visit with a hockey legend last week as the NHL's Director of Cause Marketing and hockey ambassador for the Hockey is for Everyone initiative, Willie O'Ree, spent time with the kids sharing his remarkable story.
As a part of the Anaheim Ducks S.C.O.R.E. (Scholastic Curriculum of Recreation and Education) school assembly program, O'Ree was joined by Ducks radio play-by-play announcer Steve Carroll as they visited four local elementary schools and spoke with more than 1,000 students about diversity and overcoming adversity.
Often referred to as the "Jackie Robinson of hockey," O'Ree shared with the 350 Maxwell Elementary 4th-6th graders about his path to the NHL, where in 1958 he became the first black person to play in the league, opening doors and breaking down barriers for future players of diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Born on October 15, 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick as the youngest of 13 children, O'Ree began skating at age three and playing organized hockey at age five, with some of his earliest skating memories occurring on backyard rinks.
With hockey heroes such as Gordie Howe and Maurice "Rocket" Richard, and inspired by his older brother who played hockey, O'Ree had set an early goal for himself of making it to the NHL. That goal was almost derailed when he was struck in the face by a puck while playing in a junior game during the 1955-56 season. Despite becoming almost completely blind in his right eye, he didn't let the injury slow him down.
"I told myself to forget about what you can't see and focus on what you can see," O'Ree said.
His goal became a reality, and O'Ree made hockey history when on January 18, 1958 he was called up by the Boston Bruins, joining the team in Montreal for their game against the Canadiens. After being sent back to the minors after two games with Boston, O'Ree rejoined the Bruins in the 1960-61 season and recalled the negative comments and racial slurs he endured. But he never wavered from his commitment to the sport.
"There's no substitute for hard work," O'Ree told the students. "You get out of it what you put into it."
O'Ree played 45 games with the Boston Bruins from 1958-61 and played professional hockey for 21 seasons, spending much of his time with the Los Angeles Blades and the San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League (WHL).
After retiring from the game at the end of the 1978-79 season, O'Ree took his current position with the NHL in 1998, and has spent the last 19 years traveling across North America sharing the message that "hockey is for everyone" and helping to establish programs that introduce hockey to underserved youth.
At the conclusion of their presentation, Carroll hosted a Q & A session with the hockey great, as the kids asked questions of O'Ree about his playing days. The assembly concluded with a raffle drawing and three lucky students receiving a hockey puck signed by O'Ree. Aside from imparting how hockey has changed his life, O'Ree had a strong message for the students.
"Stay in school, keep up your grades, set goals for yourselves and work towards your goals," O'Ree said. "And don't let anyone tell you that you can't attain your goal if you feel strongly about it in your heart and in your mind."
Prior to attending the assembly, the students were charged with researching and preparing a presentation about O'Ree, giving them some background on his challenges and accomplishments. Maxwell Elementary fourth grade GATE teacher Angela Thomas hoped her students would come away having been inspired both in hockey and in life.
"These kids do grow up with more diversity, but there are also still the challenges of being picked on because you're different in other ways," Thomas said. "So I'm hoping that they have seen a success story here, that even if you are that kid right now, you can still grow up and do the things that you want to do in life."
Nine-year-old fourth grader Tank Britton felt fortunate to have had time with O'Ree at his school.
"I thought it was awesome," Britton said. "He went through a lot of stuff in his career. It inspired me to keep moving on in my life. This was a one-time opportunity for us. We're lucky to have him here."
As a long time and enthusiastic participant in the Ducks S.C.O.R.E. Program, Maxwell Elementary annually attends the program's First Flight Field Trip, participates in the S.C.O.R.E Street Hockey curriculum and was the 2012 Anaheim Ducks "Power PLAY!" recipient, receiving campus upgrades and improvements, including a permanent street hockey rink. Britton's classmate, Jose Gonsalez, agreed that O'Ree's message was inspiring.
"We learned what inspired [Mr. O'Ree] to play hockey," said Gonsalez, "and it's inspired me to go out and learn how to play more sports and work hard in school."
As part of his first collaboration with the Ducks and their S.C.O.R.E. Program, O'Ree not only participated in the assemblies at local schools, but also spent time last month visiting campuses where street hockey rinks have been built by the Ducks, interacting with the kids and sharing his love for hockey. At 81, the San Diego resident shows no signs of slowing down.
"They've got a great organization, and it's a fantastic program," said O'Ree of the S.C.O.R.E. Program. "I can see why they have the success that they do. And it's fun for the kids. Being around the young boys and girls keeps you thinking young and feeling young. There's no greater feeling."
Decades after making an extraordinary impact on the ice, O'Ree continues to leave his mark on the game by using the sport of hockey to stress the importance of life skills for the next generation.
"There's an expression I like to use," O'Ree said. "'If you think you can, you can. If you think you can't, you're right.' And there's a lot of truth to that."
For more information on the Anaheim Ducks S.C.O.R.E. Program, visit ducksscore.com.
And for more information on the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone initiative, click here.