WASHINGTON -- Willie O'Ree wanted to sit down. It wasn't that O'Ree, who turns 83 on Oct. 15, was tired after being on his feet for more than an hour on a guided tour of the Smithsonian's Museum of African American History & Culture on Wednesday.
O'Ree, who became the NHL's first black player on Jan. 18, 1958 with the Boston Bruins, saw the replica chairs from Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and the enlarged photo behind them of Jackie Robinson kneeling on deck at a game in Atlanta and thought back to when he was 14 years old in 1949.
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It was then, on a trip to Ebbets Field with his youth baseball team from Fredricton, New Brunswick, that O'Ree was introduced to Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.
"Went to the game, met Mr. Robinson after down in the dugout, shook hands with him and told him that I not only played baseball but I also played hockey," O'Ree said. "He remarked that, 'I didn't know that there were any black kids playing hockey.' So, I said, 'Yeah, there's a few.' It was a big experience for me and a good learning mark."
O'Ree, the NHL's Diversity Ambassador for the Hockey Is For Everyone initiative, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman were given the tour of the museum by it curator of sports, Damion Thomas.
Thomas said the average visitor spends about five hours at the museum, which opened in 2016. Because of time constraints -- O'Ree and Commissioner Bettman were headed later to Capital One Arena to watch the Washington Capitals' season opener against the Boston Bruins -- Thomas tried to fit in as much as he could in 90 minutes.
"It was an honor to tour through the museum with Willie," Thomas said. "You're not just sharing history with a member of the public, but you're sharing history with a history maker."
O'Ree and Commissioner Bettman will each be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builders category Nov. 12.
The museum tour began in the Slavery and Freedom Gallery, where O'Ree was reminded of his own heritage and became emotional.
"My grandparents, they were slaves, and then bringing up to date, it's just amazing," O'Ree said. "I had a few tears in my eyes there."
In the Sports Gallery, O'Ree saw exhibits featuring many of his heroes, including Robinson. O'Ree was playing for the Los Angeles Blades in the Western Hockey League in 1962 when he was introduced to Robinson again at an NAACP luncheon.
"And Mr. Robinson turned around and said, 'Willie O'Ree, aren't you the young fella I met in Brooklyn?'" O'Ree said. "So, he remembered me from 1949 to 1962 and that made a big impact on me."
Just around the corner from the Ebbets Field replica chairs in the Michael Jordan Hall is a statue of Robinson sliding into home plate. When O'Ree stood beside the statue to pose for photos, Commissioner Bettman pulled out his smartphone and snapped one, too.
"It was a very special moment," the Commissioner said. "This has been an incredible day. This museum is amazing. As a bit of a history buff, there's so much I didn't know and that I was learning and it's clear to me that I have to come back. But as importantly, to be able to experience this with Willie, special doesn't begin to describe it. We've been together at a lot of different occasions, but this has been truly unique."
O'Ree, who lives in San Diego, said he plans to return to the museum with his family.
"It's a beautiful facility and it tells a lot about what a lot of black people had to go through to be released from slavery," he said. "I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to come here. It's been a real learning [experience] for me."