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O'Ree to visit Rochester youth-hockey program

by John McGourty
Former Phoenix Cardinals running back Tony Jordan is one of the top athletes that Rochester, N.Y., has produced. He was a high-school All-American at East High, went to Kansas State on a full scholarship and earned All-Conference status.

Jordan has met many of the most famous athletes and celebrities in North America, but he's looking forward to this weekend when he'll meet a sports pioneer, Willie O'Ree, who became the first black to play in the National Hockey League when he broke in with the Boston Bruins in 1958.

"I'm excited about this opportunity because it's not too often you get to meet someone who is an important part of sports history," said Jordan, now a manager with the City of Rochester Recreation Department. Jordan's involvement goes far beyond the job. The Tony Jordan Sports Foundation helps the city assist over 4,000 youths participate in organized, non-scholastic, volunteer-led, sports activities.

"The buzz in Rochester is great and the kids at the two schools he'll visit are very excited," Jordan said. "It's Black History Month and Willie is a part of black history. The adults get as excited as the kids and there are adults here that remember him playing in the NHL.

"Willie was here in 2002 and I've heard from people who met him then. They can't stop talking about him because he made such an impact. He's a great people person and he made a great impression. One guy showed me the picture that he had taken with Willie O'Ree and the Bruins playing card that Willie signed."

O'Ree will be in Rochester this weekend as the guest of Genesee Valley Youth Hockey, a volunteer-led program that provides free weekly hockey instruction and equipment to a group of about 80 Rochester children at the Genesee Valley Park Sports Complex Ice Skating Rink. O'Ree will visit two schools on Friday and visit with the Rochester Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

When O'Ree was promoted to the NHL, he kept secret that he had lost most of the sight in one eye when he was hit in the face by a puck. O'Ree was a great skater and stickhandler, but he couldn't score at the NHL level. Years later, a minor-league coach guessed O'Ree had only one good eye and switched him to his off wing. O'Ree then became a top minor-league scorer.

O'Ree, the director of youth development for the NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone Initiative, is also excited about returning to Rochester, where he'll be honored Friday night at Blue Cross Arena by dropping a ceremonial puck, along with a Rochester group of floor-hockey players, at the AHL Rochester Americans game against the Binghamton Senators. O'Ree visited Rochester several times when he played for the AHL Springfield Indians and New Haven Nighthawks. He remembers that games against the Amerks were never easy.

"They always had a tough team and a good team," O'Ree remembered. "They were always good games. I'm looking forward to going back to see the youth-hockey program in Rochester. I've got my long johns, scarf, hat and topcoat. I should be all set."

"The Rochester Americans welcome Mr. Willie O'Ree," said Adam Prescott of the Rochester Americans. "Willie O'Ree was a pioneer and responsible for bringing minorities to the Professional Sport of Ice Hockey. Thank You Mr. Willie O'Ree."

"On Saturday morning at 8:15, I'm scheduled to do a radio interview with Tony Boler on WDXK, 103.9, and at 9 a.m., we're going to the Genesee Valley Park rink to watch an on-ice clinic," O'Ree said. "I'll serve as honorary coach. Then there's a press conference there with Tony Jordan and other city officials at 9:30 a.m. After that, there's going to be a nice luncheon with the kids and their parents. Then, I'll fly home to San Diego on Sunday."

"We're going to have a pioneer, Willie O'Ree, on Rochester's pioneer black radio station," Boler said. "Andrew Langston started WDXK, whose call letters honor Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, 35 years ago. I'll be doing the O'Ree interview with his son, Andre Langston.

"The young people need to know about Willie O'Ree and his place in history. Having him here adds to the legacy of this radio station."

Florence Clemmons, the mother of a hockey player, is the Genesee Valley Youth Hockey administrator and Dave Evanetski is in his first year as coach. His twin daughters are members of the program. The group receives additional instruction from Jay Kirk, coach of the Rochester Red Wings, a youth travel team, and several of his players. J.P. Couderc also volunteers as coach.

"They have the ice time just before us," Clemmons said. "Jay asked the city if he could collaborate with us. He was at the rink already. Some of his kids stay to help our kids.

"The GVYH progam is under the sponsorship of the City of Rochester and all of the coaches and me are volunteers. They go through USA Hockey certification. I push USA Hockey's American Developmental Model. I want to see kids get developed before they try to play games. We haven't scheduled games with anybody yet. Our coaches work with the kids and help them develop skills.

"I send out weekly reminders. The parents rotate in performing tasks like filling water bottles and making sure the pucks and sticks are ready. I follow up on school progress. If a student isn't doing well in school, we encourage them to come to practice and we work with them. We try to create a different attitude. I try to help with their time-management skills and nutrition. Don Badura, our equipment manager, makes sure kids have the equipment that they need and that it fits properly."

Jim Farr, assistant director of recreation, said Clemmons has been a combination of workhorse and Godsend.

"Florence and her husband have put a lot of time into the program and made it successful," Farr said. "Now, we're going to build an interscholastic program. Some kids from the program have played with the suburban schools and Monroe County Youth Hockey. One student, Woody Hudson, is playing at Milton Prep in Massachusetts. We're hoping to build a core of kids with enough skills to start a city hockey team."

Farr remembers O'Ree's last visit.

"There are still kids who talk about the clinic and their conversations with Willie," Farr said. "One of the directors, Joe Diliberto, still has that card. My brother, Charlie, has a Bruins jersey he wants Willie to sign."

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