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At age 77, O'Ree has no plans to slow down

by Tal Pinchevsky

It's been more than 50 years since Willie O'Ree broke the NHL's color barrier on Jan. 18, 1958 with the Boston Bruins. The 15 years he's spent leading the National Hockey League's Hockey is for Everyone program have only cemented the legacy of the man who played professionally for 20 years with the use of only one good eye.

But don't call Willie O'Ree the Jackie Robinson of hockey.

"The media called me that. I never said I was Jackie Robinson. I didn't have to go through a lot of the racism and prejudice and bigotry that Mr. Robinson went through," O'Ree told "But it was there. Having slurs and racial remarks directed towards you, not only by players but fans in the stands. I let it in one ear and out the other. I just wanted to play hockey to the best of my ability."

O'Ree actually met Robinson twice, once as a 14-year-old baseball player visiting New York and years later as a member of the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League.


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"[The second meeting,] Mr. Robinson looked me in the eye and said 'You're the young fellow I met in Brooklyn.' I was shocked he remembered me," O'Ree said. "I just told him that I chose hockey over baseball. He was very happy that I had the opportunity to play."

Robinson certainly inspired O'Ree as he worked his way up the pro hockey ranks. But it was O'Ree's older brother, Richard, who had the greatest influence on him.

"My older brother was my friend and my mentor. He said, 'If this is what you want to do, work towards it and don't let anybody tell you that you can't attain your goal,'" O'Ree said. "He told me you'll be exposed to ridicule and racial slurs, but be proud of who you are. You can't change the color of your skin."

That message imparted by his brother is now the mantra behind the Hockey is for Everyone initiative, which has reached hundreds of young people in the 15 years since the trailblazing O'Ree began spearheading the program. The program even saw one participant, goaltender Gerald Coleman, drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2003.

"He was a 13-year-old lanky kid. He said, 'Mr. O'Ree, I want to be a goaltender,'" O'Ree said. "A lot of his friends said, 'You'll never make it because of your color.' It happened only because he stayed focused on what he wanted."

Now 77, O'Ree continues to be the face and voice of, as well as the inspiration behind, the program -- and he has no plans to slow down. He still makes presentations and participates in clinics across North America, and just last week was in Phoenix reaching out to the local hockey community. Along the way, the Hockey is for Everyone program has expanded, bringing the sport to children of all backgrounds and means.

"It's just a great program. I wouldn't have stayed with it for 15 years if it didn’t work. It's growing each year," O'Ree said. "As soon as I get these boys and girls on the ice, 90 percent of the job is done. There are more kids playing hockey today than ever before and there are more kids of color playing hockey today than ever before."

They all continue to look up to the man who made NHL history in 1958.

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