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Dreaming On

More than 60 years ago, Willie O'Ree was the first black player in the NHL, and at 83, he is still imagining a more diverse sport

by Erica L. Ayala @elindsay08 / NHLSeattle.com

Growing up, Willie O'Ree had two dreams: to play professional hockey and to play in the National Hockey League. Never mind that no black player had ever competed in the NHL or that O'Ree lost nearly all sight in his right eye while playing junior hockey. O'Ree's mind was made up. 

O'Ree become the NHL's first black player in early 1958 when he was called up to the Boston Bruins. He played two NHL games that season, then another 43 with Boston during the 1960-61 season. In 1980, O'Ree retired after a 21-year professional hockey career. Whether consciously or not, O'Ree began to dream again, thinking of ways to get back into hockey. "I was gonna get back to the NHL," O'Ree said in the compelling new ESPN documentary "Willie."

In 1994, O'Ree found his way back as a NHL ambassador. O'Ree was about to become the face of diversity in hockey, again. 

During the 1990s, the NHL and USA Hockey began to seek opportunities to introduce hockey to new markets. In 1994, a diversity task force was created. "Five or 10 years ago, many black and other minority kids did not have access to hockey," said NHL executive Bryant McBride in a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "Now, we're trying to give them a channel to the game, and we're doing it with programs that not only teach them how to play but also keep kids off the street."

McBride served as the NHL director of new business development and worked alongside Lou Vairo, USA Hockey's director of special projects, on the new task force. Initiatives to diversify hockey among black communities and communities of color had already begun to sprout in places like Detroit. New York City, Washington, D.C. and Boston eventually followed. The NHL and USA Hockey aimed to connect the existing programs and grow their reach. 

However, there was still a central problem. In addition to the limited access to ice and high cost that every hockey program deals with, communities of color had very little exposure to ice hockey. Vairo and McBride recruited O'Ree to be the face and voice of their diversity task force. By 1996, the league program named an annual youth hockey tournament after O'Ree. The Boston Bruins and SCORE Boston hosted the 25th annual Willie O'Ree Weekend earlier this month.

"During the time I was growing up I was always interested in youth development, helping kids set goals for themselves and work towards their goals," O'Ree told NHL Seattle in a phone conversation Monday. 

McBride tried several times to track down O'Ree about joining the diversity task force. Eventually, he reached out to the FBI to help locate O'Ree who had since established roots in San Diego. 

"Well. If they're looking for you, they'll find you," said O'Ree with a laugh as he remembered how he ended up in the NHL for the second time. This year marks his 23rd year with the league and the 21st since commissioner Gary Bettman made O'Ree the director of the "Hockey Is for Everyone" (HIFE) initiative. 

Since 1994, O'REE has helped introduce hockey to more than 50,000 of children across North America. 

In addition to his formal role with the NHL, O'Ree mentors hockey players of color who've experienced racism on the ice. He makes a point to contact young players after a case of racist taunts or violence is brought to his attention. 

O'Ree takes these consultations very seriously. According to the 83-year-old -who once attended an MLB training camp in Georgia - youth have it harder today. He was one black player in the Original Six era. Today, there are 31 NHL teams with Seattle on the way. Those numbers seem more difficult to O'Ree. 

He got through it with the help and support of his family, especially his older brother Richard. O'Ree still has to deal with racial slurs and likely always will. That is why he makes a point to reach out to youth. 

The reality is, once O'Ree broke the color barrier in 1958, he immediately became associated with the best and worst of the sport. Never will there be an incident of racism where O'Ree and his legacy are not referenced.

"I think we're getting better," said O'Ree. "People that make these remarks at the games [teams are notified] and they're ejected from the games. That's the way it should be." 

In the last 23 years, O'Ree has put in equal amounts of work, more even, to create the NHL that never existed for him. Today, there are additional linemates in the fight for a more inclusive hockey community. 

In December 2017, the National Hockey League hired Kim Davis as the executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. Davis focuses on the HIFE program and other initiatives to grow the league in untapped, more diverse markets. By February 2019, just over a year since her appointment, the NHL celebrated Black History for the first time.  

"She's doing a fantastic job," said O'Ree. "She travels around a number of cities making a promise they are taking every step to make hockey better for these boys and girls." 

The NHL and American Legacy Magazine teamed up for the first Black Hockey History mobile museum last winter. The 525-square foot mobile truck made six stops in 2019. The exhibits honored O'Ree and other black players, referees and coaches in the NHL. Women such as Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James were also featured. 

The mobile museum returns for the 2019-20 season, this time making 14 NHL stops from January through March. The Black Hockey History Tour Presented by Alaska Airlines will visit Seattle March 7 to 10, with stops at the Northwest African American Museum (March 7, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.), Seattle Center (March 8, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and Griffin YMCA (March 10, 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.). Cost is free and there will fan photo opportunities. 

When O'Ree was inducted with the 2018 Hall of Fame class, he spent just as many years growing the game as he did playing it. In the ESPN film, McBride claims O'Ree has the unique talent to open eyes. He first opened eyes with his skill and his restraint as the first black player in the NHL. As a player in the formerly professional Western Hockey League, O'Ree was definitely noticed in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest for his steady play. 

"It's a great city," said O'Ree. "I came to play in the Western Hockey League in 1960-61 and played against the Totems. I'm looking forward to coming to Seattle again and seeing people who remember me from the WHL."

Willie O'Ree knows his time in his current role will come to an end. He tried to retire once before, but his passion for the game brought him back once more. 

"I just felt I still had something to give back to the sport and to the community, so I stayed on," he said. "I've been thinking about retiring but you know there's so many, so many things that I still like to do." 

And there are more things he wants to see happen in the game, especially when it comes to diversity. 

"I'd like to see more black hockey players or players of color as referees and linesman and in the front office," he said. "The opportunities are there, you just have to set goals for yourself and work towards your goals." 

O'Ree often shares that he lost his right-eye vision well before playing his first professional game. If he had believed what the doctors told him-that he shouldn't continue playing-O'Ree never would have the chance to impact the game the way he has. 

"I tell these boys and girls, 'If you think you can, you can. If you think you can't, you're right,' " said O'Ree. "There's a lot of truth to that." 

For more information about the Seattle stops for the NHL's Black Hockey History tour, please visit https://www.nhl.com/fans/black-hockey-history

 

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