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O'Ree moved by celebrations honoring 60th anniversary of NHL debut

First black player in League continues to preach message of inclusion in hockey

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

BOSTON -- The standing ovation started on the benches of the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens and spread through TD Garden as Willie O'Ree walked out to center ice on Wednesday to drop the ceremonial puck.

It was one day shy of 60 years since O'Ree became the first black player in the National Hockey League, playing for the Bruins against the Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958 in the Montreal Forum. He would play 45 games in the NHL, and now serves as the Director of Youth Development for the League, where he works with boys and girls and preaches a message of inclusion in hockey.

"The whole week has just been a thrill," O'Ree said of the celebrations surrounding the anniversary. "I was glad to come back to Boston. I was glad to get together and be able to see the SCORE kids and some of the other kids in the [youth hockey] programs. I was glad I was able to watch them play their games.

 

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"Just a fantastic week. I'm blessed. I really am."

The Bruins, the NHL and the city of Boston announced earlier in the day that a new street hockey rink in Allston-Brighton would be dedicated to O'Ree. Willie O'Ree Rink, located close to the Bruins practice facility, will open in the summer of 2018, aided by a $100,000 contribution from the NHL.

"Our city will always be grateful for his courage and his leadership," Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said at the announcement at TD Garden. "We're going to continue to honor him by sharing his commitments to inclusion and progress. We're never going to rest where we are as a state. We should never rest where we are as a country."

Video: Pioneer Willie O'Ree performs ceremonial puck drop

It wasn't the only way in which O'Ree was honored on Wednesday. Walsh, who called O'Ree a Boston legend and said he changed Boston for the better, proclaimed Jan. 18, 2018 as Willie O'Ree Day in the city of Boston.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman also unveiled a special gift, the game sheets from Jan. 18, 1958, with O'Ree's name among the players.

"Sixty years ago tomorrow, Willie truly distinguished himself by becoming our first black player and he has distinguished himself ever since in sharing his commitment to our game, sharing his hockey joy, the lessons the game teaches, with young people," Commissioner Bettman said.

Commissioner Bettman pointed out that the wire service story written about O'Ree's debut claimed that his game was "undistinguished," though it did note that O'Ree had become the first black player to play in the National Hockey League.

Video: MTL@BOS: O'Ree talks about breaking the color barrier

"While I wasn't there -- I think I was five years old at the time -- I would question the use of the term 'undistinguished' for a number of reasons, especially because of the challenges Willie O'Ree overcame to earn his No. 22 Bruins jersey for that game," Commissioner Bettman said.

"Willie's speed, his skill, and his sheer perseverance earned him a job in what was then the six-team National Hockey League, and obviously jobs as a player in those days were scarce. But his determination to concentrate on what he could see and not what he couldn't see carried him past an eye injury that would have stopped anyone who didn't share his character, his courage and his will to succeed at the sport he loved."

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