-- Willie O'Ree
returned to the footprint Tuesday night where he established an imprint in NHL history a half-century ago.
When he took his first Bruins shift on January 18, 1958 in Montreal against the Canadiens, O'Ree became the first black player to crack an NHL roster.
The next night of the back-to-back affair, his first shift in Boston extended the milestone to two countries in 24 hours.
Tuesday night, the Boston Sports Museum honored the Fredericton, New Brunswick native with the Hockey Legacy Award at the 10th Annual "The Tradition," joining previous hockey recipients, including Milt Schmidt
, Harry Sinden, Cam Neely
, and last year, the entire 1970 Stanley Cup squad.
The TD Garden's fifth and sixth levels house the Sports Museum, where many of O'Ree's memorabilia will be honored -- along with a pantheon of other greats in Boston sports lore also recognized at the annual event.
"Willie is a very special person," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told NHL.com before making the formal presentation to O'Ree in front of thousands in attendance. "Some have called him the Jackie Robinson of hockey. Throughout his life, he has been able to meet the challenges no matter what the adversity to overcome."
Two personal meetings with Robinson inspired O'Ree to overcome two major types of "blindness" -- one of the figurative nature relating to skin color, and one the literal from an errant puck that resulted in a 95 percent loss of sight in his right eye two years before being called up to the Bruins from the Quebec Aces in the 1957-58 season.
O'Ree kept that loss a secret, playing some 26 years, knowing that making it public would have abruptly ended his playing career -- not to mention achieving a historic niche in sports history.
"I first met Jackie Robinson in 1949," O'Ree told NHL.com. "I was playing baseball in my hometown, and we won the championship that year. The reward was to come to New York and see the Empire State Building and Radio City Music Hall. We went over to Ebbets Field and met Jackie Robinson after a game. I told him I not only played baseball, but also hockey.
"He said, 'I didn't know there were any black kids playing hockey,'" O'Ree recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, Mr. Robinson, there are.'
While O'Ree’s 1958 NHL debut with the Bruins was a landmark event, it would be three years before he donned a Bruins sweater again. In 1961, he played 43 games on the wing with Don McKenney
at center, and Jerry Toppazzini
on the other, scoring four goals and 10 assists that season.
O'Ree never returned to the NHL sheet.
"I got traded to Montreal's [system the end of the 1961 season]," said O'Ree. "They may have caught wind of the my eye injury – or maybe I got [shuffled] in the trade with them wanting to play other players. But I was happy [when Montreal sent me] to Los Angeles."
He went on to win two scoring titles in the Western Hockey League between 1961 and 1974, scoring 30 or more goals four times with the WHL's Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls, and playing until 1979 at the age of 43.
"In 1961, the NAACP had a luncheon in honor of Mr. Robinson and I received an invitation through the Los Angeles hockey club and went and met him again. He remembered me from that meeting in 1949.
"I told him that hockey was my career. He said, 'Stay positive on your thinking; everything else will work out.'
And work out it has for O'Ree – in many ways.
O'Ree's legacy list (see related article) is a lengthy one, highlighted with a 1998 invitation by the NHL to be the director of youth development for its diversity task force -- a non-profit program for minority youth that encourages them to learn and play hockey.
"I've gotten to know Willie over the past two decades while he's been working with us," Bettman said. "He works with children to instill the values that our game presents of discipline and hard work – and teamwork. He's an inspiration to anyone he comes in contact with. But he has given so much back to the game."
"I'm in a position to give back what the sport gave to me over the years," said O'Ree, the Director of the NHL Diversity Program. "We have 33 non-profit programs throughout North America. I travel doing a lot of clinics. I was in South Boston this morning with about 170 kids. Breaking into the NHL, and scoring my first goal here in Boston on January 1, 1961, was great, but reaching out and giving kids the opportunity to play hockey and getting them on the ice is even better."
Does O'Ree see any barriers in the way of advancing the sport?
"Construct more rinks," he smiled. "If you get the rinks, you'll get more kids."
At 76, O'Ree is still a kid a heart who made some history in 1958.
Tuesday night, he made a little more on the same stage where the Bruins April-to-June run brought a Stanley Cup to Boston for the first time in 39 years.
"I was overwhelmed when I was contacted about this award," beamed O'Ree. "I've been a Bruins fans since 1957 when I came to training camp here. And to get the award right after Boston won the Cup, I'd like to have my skates on right now."