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NHL pioneer O'Ree continues to command respect

by Adam Kimelman / NHL.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds has met Willie O'Ree before, but said he hasn't earned the right to address O'Ree on a first-name basis.

"It's Mr. O'Ree," Simmonds said before talking to O'Ree and posing for pictures with him in the Flyers' locker room Saturday. "He's my elder; treat him with respect. … My parents taught me who he was at an early age. I've looked up to him for so long. Going to be a great opportunity to talk to him again."

O'Ree became the first black man to play in the NHL when he made his debut with the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958. O'Ree said he's proud to be called a pioneer and the Jackie Robinson of professional hockey.

"I never get tired," O'Ree said. "It's the thing that I experienced. When I broke the color barrier in 1958 it seemed to stick with me. The media called me the Jackie Robinson of hockey and I'm very happy to be in the same category of Mr. Robinson. I met Mr. Robinson on two occasions; I met him in 1949 in Brooklyn and I met him again in 1962 when he was the keynote speaker at a luncheon in Los Angeles. … He made a big impact with me. I'm just happy when they say there's Willie O'Ree, he's the Jackie Robinson of hockey."

Willie O'Ree, the first black man to play in the NHL, takes a photo with Philadelphia Flyers (left to right) Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Wayne Simmonds and Ray Emery. (Philadelphia Flyers)

New York Rangers forward Rick Nash went past the locker room to chat with O'Ree upon leaving the ice after the Rangers' morning skate Saturday.

"Icon of the game," Nash said. "Just wanted to pay my respects."

O'Ree is in Philadelphia as part of the 2015 Willie O'Ree Skills Weekend, hosted by the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. The weekend-long celebration, part of the NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone initiative, began Friday and runs through Sunday. In addition to an on-ice clinic and skills event, the children will have trips to the National Liberty Museum, Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania and Independence National Park. They'll also attend the Flyers game Saturday against the New York Rangers (8 p.m. ET, NBC, City).

Now working as the director of cause marketing for the NHL, O'Ree said the Snider Hockey program is the model for the League-wide Hockey Is For Everyone campaign.

"I would say that it is," O'Ree said. "I just think it's the growth of the whole program. These kids are coming in and learning not only the educational part but learning how to play hockey. Just takes off. There's more rinks being built, more kids playing; more kids playing hockey than ever before. This is a great program. And Jim Britt [vice president and chief operating officer] has done a fantastic job of working with these kids and letting them know hockey is for everyone."

Snider Hockey president Scott Tharp said he's proud to hear that compliment from O'Ree, but said it means only that the foundation's programs have started to make an impact.

"It validates that we're on track to achieve our objective and achieve our mission," he said. "But we know we have such a long way to go. We don't want to rest on our laurels. As soon as we start believing we're the model then somebody else will pass us by and we can't let that happen. We're very proud to have that recognition."

The Snider Hockey program, which will turn 10 years old in May, now serves 3,000 children between the ages of 5 and 19 from around the city of Philadelphia. They own and operate five ice rinks in the city and combine the opportunity to play hockey with a chance to improve educationally.

"These programs weren't around when I was growing up," O'Ree, 79, said. "So I just tell these kids to set goals for yourselves and work toward those goals. Believe in yourself and feel good about yourself and like yourself. I'm extremely happy with this program here. [Flyers chairman] Ed Snider and Jim Britt, they've done a fantastic job. I was here a few years ago and I've seen the growth. These kids are not only playing hockey but the educational part is good, they're all doing well in school. That's the most important thing."

O'Ree will talk with the children and answer any questions they have but won't be going on the ice with them. He has a walking boot on his right foot, the result of recent fusion surgery on his right ankle to repair an injury from his playing days; he said March 12 he'll have another procedure done to implant rods to help stabilize his leg. Once that heals, though, he said he'll be lacing his skates up again.

"As soon as I get my ankle taken care of I'm going to get back out on the ice with the kids," O'Ree said. "I get out and still move around with them. Just teach them the fundamentals of the game, stickhandling, puck control, keeping your head up, two hands on the stick."

Whatever role O'Ree plays, Simmonds was happy just to have a few minutes to talk to him again.

"It means a great deal to me," Simmonds said. "I've had an opportunity to meet Willie before. He's an unbelievable guy. He means so much for the sport. For me on a personal level, he was the first black man in the NHL. … If it wasn't for him I definitely wouldn't be playing the game today, I know that."

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