Fresh off his Hockey Hall of Fame induction in Toronto last month, NHL Diversity Ambassador Willie O'Ree was back in SoCal last week to partner with the Anaheim Ducks S.C.O.R.E. Program in delivering his message of overcoming adversity.
As part of the Hockey is for Everyone initiative, O'Ree visited Friends Christian School in Yorba Linda and Corona Ranch Elementary to share the story of his 21-year professional hockey career and his path to breaking the color barrier in the NHL.
Ducks radio play-by-play announcer Steve Carroll joined O'Ree in hosting the Ducks S.C.O.R.E. (Scholastic Curriculum of Recreation and Education) school assembly and interviewed the Fredericton, New Brunswick native about his passion for hockey and the challenges he faced along the road to entering the league in 1958 with the Boston Bruins as the first black player in the NHL.
"The two goals I had set for myself were to play professional hockey and one day play in the National Hockey League, and I attained those two goals," O'Ree told the 350 fourth through sixth graders at Corona Ranch Elementary. "When you feel in your heart and mind that you want to do something, you have to follow your dream."
Facing criticism for the color of his skin, as well as an injury that left him blind in one eye, O'Ree's message to the local students was one of setting goals and working hard, both in sports and in life.
"You need to set goals for yourself, and you need to believe in yourself," O'Ree said. "Just forget about what you can't see and concentrate on what you can see."
Corona Ranch fifth grader Evan Pena was part of the school's street hockey team last year, playing in net for the Rockets as their goaltender. He appreciated hearing from a hockey trailblazer and took to heart O'Ree's message of persistence and education.
"I thought it was really cool," Pena said. "I learned to stay in school and set goals for yourself. And if you do what you love, you can accomplish those goals."
As the liaison between Corona Ranch and the Ducks S.C.O.R.E. Program, fourth grade teacher Michelle Rhay was thrilled for her students to hear O'Ree's inspirational story.
"The assembly was amazing," Rhay said. "I was really excited when I saw our school could have someone here who is a pioneer in hockey. I thought it would be a great person for our kids to meet."
With the opening of a new street hockey rink on the Corona Ranch campus earlier this year, Rhay, who also coaches the school's street hockey team, is grateful for the support the Ducks provide through their S.C.O.R.E. Program initiatives.
"The Ducks do so much for us," Rhay said. "They support us tremendously, and the kids love it."
O'Ree had a special guest in the audience during his presentation at Corona Ranch, a former teammate from his days with the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League (WHL), goaltender Dennis Roy. [pictured below]
Upon seeing each other for the first time in many years, the two embraced and shared stories of their playing days as if no time had passed. Roy's daughter is a teacher at Corona Ranch and his grandchildren attend the school. Knowing O'Ree would be making an appearance, Roy did not want to miss the chance to catch up with his long time friend.
"I couldn't believe it," Roy said. "I told my daughter, I want to go. I want to see him."
Having watched O'Ree's Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony on television, Roy is making sure his grandchildren understand the impact his former teammate continues to have on the sport.
"You feel like you're part of it, because we went through so much," Roy said. "Hockey owes him so much because he never backed away."
In celebration of becoming a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame's Class of 2018, the Ducks honored O'Ree during their game against the New Jersey Devils on December 9. In a pre-game ceremony, Ducks owners Henry and Susan Samueli presented O'Ree with a custom, one-of-a-kind gold puck and a fedora.
"It was unbelievable," O'Ree said of being honored by the Ducks. "It was quite an evening. I was very impressed and very thrilled. And [the Ducks] came from behind and won, 6-5. Everyone went away happy."
Although he played only 45 games in the NHL, the impact O'Ree has had on hockey both as a player and an ambassador has left an indelible legacy of inclusivity, opening doors to make the sport accessible to anyone who wants to play.
"I didn't dream about going into the Hockey Hall of Fame," O'Ree said. "But then when I got the call, I was thrilled. A lot of influential people went to bat for me. I'm blessed. I really am."
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, visit nhl.com/community/hockey-is-for-everyone.