-- Whenever Willie O'Ree
finds the urge to tell a good story, he's compelled to rehash the tale of Gerald Coleman
Fact is, O'Ree's story isn't that bad either. After all, the director of youth development for the Hockey is for Everyone initiative is the first black player in the history of the NHL. But there's something about Coleman that puts a smile on O'Ree's face each time he begins reminiscing about his former student.
Despite the seemingly unfavorable odds, Coleman was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning
in the seventh round (No. 224) of the 2003 Entry Draft. He became the first graduate of the NHL's diversity program to play in the NHL when he made a relief appearance on Nov. 11, 2005.
It wasn't an easy road to the top for Coleman -- something O'Ree is all too familiar with.
"Gerald went through the (HIFE) program in Chicago when he was 13 years old," O'Ree told NHL.com. "He wanted to be a goalie, but his parents and friends wanted him to play basketball. They told him he'd be held back if he played hockey because of his color and that he wouldn't get the chances that the other white goalies were getting.
"But Gerald wanted to play hockey, and even though his friends tried to convince him otherwise, he had already set a goal for himself. He played in the NHL and is now in the minors (with the Trenton Devils of the ECHL). It's a fine example of how, if you set goals for yourself and work hard at it, you can achieve anything."
Coleman's story is just one of many that O'Ree shared with NHL.com during his recent visit to New York to promote HIFE, which has exposed children of all ethnic backgrounds to unique hockey experiences throughout North America.
"Willie started with this program 12 years ago, and Coleman is a great example of how far we have come from the first stage of kids with walkers on the ice to where we had a couple from Alaska just flying around out there," HIFE ambassador Tony McKegney
said. "It's great to see how far it's come in such a short time. The support the League has given has enabled these 12 years to go by so quickly."
O'Ree has run many clinics for Ice Hockey In Harlem since taking his post for NHL Diversity in 1998. O'Ree broke the NHL color barrier on Jan. 18, 1958, as a member of the Boston Bruins
. His courage and determination have paved a path for future players of diverse and economic backgrounds.
"My older brother was not only my friend but my mentor and he had a lot to do with the amount of time I played professionally," O'Ree said. "I played 21 years, and some of the things he taught stayed with me -- I just took it a day at a time. He told me that I'd hear racial slurs and remarks on the ice, but to just stay focused on what I wanted to do. If they couldn't accept me for the hockey player I was and forget that I was a black player, it's just tough luck. And that's what I set out to do."
Over the past decade, O'Ree has traveled thousands of miles across North America helping to support more than 39 local grassroots hockey programs.
"The more time you can spend on the ice, the better hockey player you are going to be," said O'Ree, who grew up the youngest of 13 children in one of only two black families in Fredericton, New Brunswick. "I started skating at 2 years old and I always loved it. I spent all the time I could in winter skating and playing hockey. That's why I was such a good skater."
"He wanted to be a goalie, but his parents and friends wanted him to play basketball. But Gerald wanted to play hockey, and even though his friends tried to convince him otherwise, he had already set a goal for himself. He played in the NHL and is now in the minors. It's a fine example of how, if you set goals for yourself and work hard at it, you can achieve anything." -- Willie O'Ree
The League-wide HIFE initiative includes numerous activities to promote the diversity of the game that involve clubs, players, alumni, fans, and grass-roots diversity programs, all with the goal of raising awareness and celebrating the growth of hockey.
"When I came aboard we only had five programs, but now there are more boys and girls playing hockey today than ever before," O'Ree said. "With so many rinks being constructed, more boys and girls get the opportunity to play a sport that they never had the opportunity to play. It cost us about $50 a year for these kids to play -- we'll outfit them with all the protective gear, we'll register them with USA Hockey and we'll have volunteers pick up the boys and girls and even bring them to and from the rink. If they don't like it, they can just walk away and it won't cost them one penny."
But O'Ree never anticipates quitters once they begin the program.
"I would probably say 99 percent of the kids who start to skate and play are hooked," he offered. "And all are doing well in school."