"I've always had a great time with the kids, either the first visit or numerous visits. A lot of these kids come from the inner city and they haven't had a lot. The ice time is limited, but when you get on the ice with them, you can really see that they enjoy it and have a great time. That's what it's all about, just making sure these kids have fun and look forward to coming back. I'm going to have a good time with them, get my picture taken with them and just have fun." -- Willie O'Ree
always will be famous for becoming the first black player in NHL history when he made his debut for the Boston Bruins
against the Montreal Canadiens
on Jan. 18, 1958.
To celebrate the anniversary, the San Jose Sharks
will honor O'Ree before Thursday night's game against the Bruins at the HP Pavilion. O'Ree will drop the ceremonial first puck between Bruins' captain Zdeno Chara
and Sharks' captain Rob Blake
"The Sharks are proud to welcome Willie on this anniversary of an historic event," San Jose General Manager Doug Wilson said.
When all is said and done, O'Ree's greatest legacy should be the thousands of kids he has inspired since becoming the NHL's Director of Youth Development in 1998. For that reason, O'Ree is just as excited about his schedule on Friday as he is about the honors the Sharks will bestow Thursday.
"We're going to have dinner at the HP Pavilion restaurant," O'Ree said. "Then I'm going to do the ceremonial puck drop and they have me scheduled for radio and TV interviews.
"We'll be commemorating my 52nd anniversary. On Friday, we're going to the Oakland Technical High School to meet with the school hockey team and the kids in the skating phys-ed classes and then have lunch at the Oakland firehouse. Later in the afternoon, we'll be at the Oakland Ice Center to meet with the Hockey Is For Everyone kids. A couple of the San Jose Sharks
will be there. We'll sign some autographs and interact with the kids.
"I've always had a great time with the kids, either the first visit or numerous visits," O'Ree said. "A lot of these kids come from the inner city and they haven't had a lot. The ice time is limited, but when you get on the ice with them, you can really see that they enjoy it and have a great time. That's what it's all about, just making sure these kids have fun and look forward to coming back. I'm going to have a good time with them, get my picture taken with them and just have fun."
O'Ree is 75 and just had his left knee replaced. He could enjoy his retirement with his wife in San Jose, but his is an important mission and he's never happier than when he is around kids.
As Director of Youth Development for the NHL, O'Ree has helped the NHL's "Hockey is for Everyone" initiative expose more than 45,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds to unique hockey experiences. Over the past decade, O'Ree has traveled thousands of miles across North America helping to establish 30 local grassroots hockey programs. While advocating strongly that "Hockey is for Everyone," O'Ree stresses the importance of essential life skills, education, and the core values of hockey, which are: commitment, perseverance, and teamwork.
O'Ree will be returning to Oakland where physical-education teacher Kelley Haskins has instituted the Oakland school system's first skating phys-ed classes and the interscholastic hockey team, coached by fellow Oakland teacher Tim Lyons and assistant coach Jim Halpin, an Oakland firefighter.
"The kids are doing well in school, too," O'Ree said. "That's one of the things I find when I visit these programs and I ask them how they're doing in school and they're telling me they're getting their grades up to As and Bs. That's another good thing. They can interact with these other kids, have fun and get their grades up."
The kids in the phys-ed program have proven their desire. Ice time is available for them at 6:45 a.m. on school days and they've shown up in droves. Haskins teaches the class and Halpin helps her. The hockey team practices in the evening. Lyons and Halpin are assisted by Tom Sedaka, who grew up playing in the HIFE program in Berkeley and attended goalie camp at Okanagan Goalie School one summer in care of the NHL's HIFE program.
O'Ree said it shows the hunger kids have for positive recreational opportunities.
"Been there, done that. Sometimes, that's the only time they can get the ice," O'Ree said. "These kids are really motivated and really want to be there."
The high school team plays in a league based at Sharks Ice at San Jose and the Sharks Ice-managed Oakland Ice Center. Sharks Ice also operates Sharks Ice at Fremont, another East Bay rink, and local youth-hockey teams play at all three rinks.
Oakland Ice Center General Manager Melissa Fitzgerald said the programs have received tremendous support, including a $13,000 grant from the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame that is being used to supply hockey equipment. The NHL Players' Association also made a substantial donation in the form of hockey equipment.
"The NHL's 'Hockey Is For Everyone' is our hero in partnering with us to help us provide these programs," Fitzgerald said. "We've also received great support from the Oakland police and fire departments. Their annual 'Guns and Hoses' charity game raised over $8,000 and they provide plenty of volunteer coaching to the kids in the programs.
"Both groups have been wonderfully supportive and act as role models for the kids," Fitzgerald said.
Oakland Ice Center started a sled-hockey program last week and O'Ree will also meet with those players, she said, adding that group has received support from the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program under the direction of Youth Sports Program Coordinator Trooper Johnson, a top American wheelchair basketball player who represented our country in international competitions for over a decade.
"This program has opened doors and increased their ability to learn new skills and enjoy a sport that they had thought they could only watch," Johnson said. "This experience has proven the fact that hockey really is for everyone!"
O'Ree will then meet with the kids in the Special Skaters Program that reaches out to a variety of children with special needs.
If you had told O'Ree 40 years ago, when he was starring in the Pacific Coast League that San Jose would be a thriving NHL town and that there would be kids playing hockey all over the East Bay, he might have looked at you funny.
"The closest team was in San Francisco and we played at the Cow Palace," O'Ree said. "It was quite a building. They had a lot of rodeos there and every time you went in it you could smell the manure and the sand and the gravel. We did very well up there when the Seals were playing there. We averaged around 7.500 fans."
O'Ree is a consistent sort, the same person every time you meet him, and he holds people accountable, whether you're a kid on the ice doing one of his drills or an adult who can help support youth hockey. Thus, his closing words came as no surprise.
"We could use more rinks because some of these kids have to travel quite a distance in some areas," O'Ree said. "The interest is there and just giving these boys and girls the opportunity to play a sport that they never had before is just great. I think the NHL is doing a fantastic job of letting these kids know about this sport."