Chandra O’Ree was in diapers when her father hung up his skates for the last time, so she’s only seen footage of Willie O’Ree, the fleet skater, smart player, and NHL pioneer.
“The footage is nice,” Chandra O’Ree told NHL.com, “but it would have been great to see him play in person.”
Saturday, she got to at least see her father honored in living color, and nothing is better than seeing a sellout crowd of 17, 565 at the TD Banknorth Garden standing, cheering, and honoring dad’s legacy and place in hockey history.
Fifty years ago Friday, O’Ree became the NHL’s first black player when he suited up and played forward for the Boston Bruins
in a 3-0 win against the Montreal Canadiens
at the Montreal Forum. Saturday, the Bruins celebrated O’Ree’s 50th anniversary during their afternoon game against the New York Rangers
“It is a big deal to me, a really big deal,” Chandra, 28, told NHL.com. “His story is amazing. I think it’s inspiring to anyone who hears it. And, of course, I want people to know about my dad and his legacy. This 50th anniversary is probably one of the most exciting things I’ve experienced.”
Willie O’Ree, the Director of Youth Development for NHL Diversity, has been on quite a press junket during the past week leading up to Saturday’s celebration. He said it feels as though he’s on the campaign trail trying to win votes in swing states, but the native of Fredericton, N.B., who now lives in San Diego, wouldn’t trade the notoriety for anything.
“Oh my goodness, I think we have done over 80 interviews in the last week,” O’Ree, 72, told NHL.com. “It’s just been unbelievable, but it’s a nice feeling to be remembered. I really feel that I’m blessed that I’m here and I have the opportunity to give back to hockey what hockey has given me over the years.”
O’Ree’s day of publicity Saturday began at 11 a.m. in The Sports Museum of New England, located on the fifth level of the TD Banknorth Garden. There, they held an unveiling of an exhibit in his honor.
There were already some O’Ree artifacts in The Sports Museum, but the display case unveiled Saturday is somewhat of a shrine to him and his place in hockey history. It is trimmed with a plaque that reads, “Willie O’Ree: Hockey Pioneer.”
The glass-cased exhibit houses numerous photos donated by O’Ree, a copy of a newspaper clipping from his debut, and a painting of his likeness as a young 20-something forward in a Bruins uniform. The painting was commissioned by both the Bruins and the NHL.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words which is strange because of all the speaking engagements I attended over the years,” O’Ree told a gathering of people, including some former teammates and many friends from his hometown of Fredericton, at the unveiling. “I can’t tell you how I feel inside. There are no words I can say.”
On the other hand, Dick Johnson, The Sports Museum’s curator, gushed.
“On the roster of all-time Bruins players, Willie’s name falls between Terry O’Reilly and Bobby Orr,” Johnson told the gathering. “More importantly, though, I feel his name falls between that of Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson.”
From the unveiling, O’Ree went upstairs to a luncheon at Banners, a restaurant on the sixth level. O’Ree spoke briefly to the crowd there after hearing words of praise from NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly.
Kelly announced the Players Association was donating $10,000 of equipment in O’Ree’s name to SCORE Boston, which works with NHL Diversity to promote the game of hockey to children from underprivileged areas of Boston.
After the luncheon O’Ree was shuttled down to ice level for interviews prior to being introduced on the ice after the National Anthem for a ceremonial puck drop with Boston captain Zdeno Chara and Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr.
As he walked down the carpet laid on top of the ice, O’Ree was flanked by a child from SCORE Boston and another from Ice Hockey in Harlem. The two groups played a three-minute game after the second intermission and a full game on the Garden ice after the Bruins and Rangers were done.
O’Ree’s final activity in front of the Garden fans came after the first intermission when he gave a speech to the crowd after receiving gifts from the Bruins and the NHL.
O’Ree spoke of his appreciation for the Bruins and his former teammates, four of whom were in attendance: Johnny Buczyk, Doug Mohns, Fern Flaman and Ken Broderick. Buczyk, Mohns and Flaman were on the Montreal Forum ice Jan. 18, 1958. Broderick and O’Ree played together for the San Diego Gulls of the WHL from 1971-74.
|O'Ree gave a speech to the sellout crowd of 17,565 at TD Banknorth Garden after the first intermission.
At one point during his speech, O’Ree turned around to face the sections behind the home goal where 51 people from Fredericton, including Mayor Brad Woodside, were seated. He thanked them for being a part of his special day.
The Fredericton crew was easily recognizable. Each of them wore a yellow scarf with the name ‘O’Ree’, and both the U.S. and Canadian flags stitched on.
“When I think of Willie, I think of a pioneer with all he has been able to accomplish. He set his mind on goals and he went out and achieved those goals,” Daly told NHL.com. “I think of a teacher and I’ve seen him in teaching settings where he clearly articulates life values to young people in a meaningful way. He is an ambassador, and this sport has never had a better ambassador than Willie O’Ree.”
O’Ree was so overwhelmed by Saturday’s festivities that he said celebrating his 50th means more than the historic night when he broke the League’s color barrier.
“I think this is more special,” said O’Ree, who played only 45 NHL games, but completed 21 professional seasons. “There wasn’t too much said when I broke in. The big write-up was the Bruins shutout the Habs in Montreal. Being here in Boston, getting all the publicity, and seeing some of my former teammates, it’s really great.”
Unlike his younger sister, Kevin O’Ree, Willie’s 43-year-old son, remembers watching his father play in the old WHL.
“From third grade up until he retired (in 1980),” Kevin told NHL.com.
While those days spent at the rink together were memorable, Saturday’s celebration gave them true meaning.
“The minute I heard about it I couldn’t believe it,” Kevin told NHL.com. “I told my wife that the NHL is going to be flying us to Boston to attend this. I couldn’t believe it. It’s overwhelming. It’s the best experience of my life when it comes to hockey.”
Better yet, Chandra got to see this one in person.
“I knew all about his accomplishments,” she said, “but to be here and see the fans and people take to him, it’s just amazing to see.”
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org