Willie O'Ree has been to two LA Kings game in two different states this month.
O'Ree saw LA play the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 15 and then was also at the Kings' Hockey Is For Everyone game at Staples Center on Feb. 22.
Video: Willie O'Ree drops the ceremonial puck on HIFE Night
Overall, it was a big month for the 82-year-old. O'Ree, the NHL's first black hockey player, was highly involved in Hockey Is For Everyone month - a stretch of games where the NHL's teams pushed a message of inclusion, saying that nothing should impede anyone from playing hockey.
He was also in Philadelphia for the Willie O'Ree Skills Weekend - which hosted more than 100 inner-city students, coaches and directors from the Hockey is for Everyone programs across North America. He then went to San Jose on Tuesday for the Sharks' Hockey Is For Everyone game.
"It has been busy and I've enjoyed every minute of it with the boys and girls. Just looking forward to the next day," O'Ree said.
We spoke with O'Ree about Hockey Is For Everyone, and what it means for him to still be a role model to today's NHL players.
LAKings.com: What does this month mean to you?
O'Ree: Well, it's great what the teams are doing. I've known quite a few players that give their time for the Hockey Is For Everyone program. As far as making that big push, the kids are coming out. There's more kids playing hockey today than ever before. There are more girls playing hockey today than ever before. Hockey is a very unique sport and expensive - for ice-time and equipment and everything. We make it affordable for these boys and girls. If they want to play hockey, we'll make it affordable for them. We won't turn any boy or girl away. And that's one of the nice things. If they're keeping their grades up in school and if they're working hard, we will subsidize and make sure that they get to the rink for a practice or game, and make sure that they get back to their home safely. That's the nice thing about the volunteers that we have with the program. The program works. I wouldn't have stayed with it for 20 years if the program didn't work. It is a lot of fun.
LAKings.com: What can you say about the inclusive nature of hockey in Southern California?
O'Ree: Well, it's growing. There are more hockey rinks in Southern California now than ever before. When I came to Los Angeles in 1961, there were a few rinks - not many, but there were a lot of kids playing at that time. And then as the rinks became available, more kids started to come out and play. I would definitely say that Southern California has (grown) leaps and bounds over the last 10 years.
LAKings.com: In that game between the Kings and the Penguins, Ryan Reaves said he would score a goal for you and followed through … that must have been fun for you:
O'Ree: I was down in the dressing room and we were talking. I said 'Ryan, go out there and get a goal for me.' And he said 'Mr. O'Ree, I'll try my best.' So, I'm watching the game and the game is going on, and all of a sudden he steps up and gets that goal. They interviewed me about 15 minutes after that and I said, 'thanks Ryan for the goal.' I guess the fans stood up and gave him an ovation. That was nice.
LAKings.com: What does it mean to you that today's players still look up to you and see you as such an inspiration?
O'Ree: Hockey has always been my life. I played it until I was 45 and I've met some of the great players that are playing in the game today. Not only black players, but players of color. Jarome Iginla once said to me, 'Mr. O'Ree, I can't imagine what you had to go through to make it possible for players like me to play in the NHL at this time.' He said, 'I have the highest admiration and the highest respect for you.' That means a lot from a guy that's been a star in the league over the years and it's just nice to know. These guys are in the league not because of their color, they're in the league because they have the skills and the ability to be there. Breaking down barriers and opening doors for not only players of color, but black players. These guys are role models for players. You can't imagine what it means to these boys and girls when they're able to see an NHL player. They don't have to say anything. All they have to do is just let them know that they're in their presence and that's a nice feeling.