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Hockey Is For Everyone

O'Ree drops ceremonial puck at Blue Jackets game

First black player in NHL in Columbus to speak on League's Hockey Is For Everyone initiative

by Craig Merz / Correspondent

COLUMBUS -- Willie O'Ree is approaching 60 years since he became the first black player to play in the NHL, but his enthusiasm for hockey and his desire to see the sport attract a broader following hasn't waned.

O'Ree, 82, is in Columbus through Wednesday morning as the NHL's Diversity Ambassador. He dropped the ceremonial first puck to a standing ovation prior to the Columbus Blue Jackets game against the Los Angeles Kings at Nationwide Arena on Saturday.

"Working around the kids, going to a school, doing a clinic or going to a YM or YWCA, a boys or girls club; anywhere there's kids and I can talk to them, I love it," O'Ree said.

O'Ree is no stranger to Columbus. He has been to Ohio's capital city 18 times, according to John Haferman, director of the Columbus Ice Hockey Club (CIHC), an organization whose programs include those for sled hockey, women and girls and special needs children.

O'Ree on Sunday will meet with players from CIHC's youth leagues. The following two days he will discuss his journey to the NHL and the League's Hockey Is For Everyone initiative at four Columbus schools.

Video: LAK@CBJ: Blue Jackets honor O'Ree during puck drop

He was also hoping to reunite after the game Saturday with Seth Jones, the Blue Jackets' African-American defenseman. They first met at an event during the week leading to the 2013 NHL Draft, when Jones was selected by the Nashville Predators with the No. 4 pick.

"I knew who he was, obviously, a lot of people do, and what he did for the game for minority players," Jones said. "He's an extremely nice guy and so many people have nothing but great things to say about him."

O'Ree, a native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, made his NHL debut for the Boston Bruins at the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958.

Having played against the Canadiens in the preseason and in the Montreal Forum in juniors and the minors, O'Ree didn't immediately grasp the significance of being a black player on white ice.

"I was just Willie O'Ree with a Boston Bruins jersey on," he said.

It wasn't until his second call-up to the Bruins that the media started referring to him as the Jackie Robinson of hockey. Like the player who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, O'Ree had to endure his share of taunts and threats.

O'Ree's older brother gave him some advice: "You're going to run into racism, prejudice, ignorance and bigotry. I know the type of person you really are. If you feel strongly about choosing hockey as a career just go out and work as hard as you can and let everything else go in one ear and out the other."

O'Ree played 45 games in the NHL with the Bruins and had 14 points (four goals, 10 assists); He played 21 years of pro hockey despite losing vision in his right eye after being struck by a puck as a teenager.

"I wish I could have played in the National Hockey League longer but things happen for a reason," he said. "Getting involved in the Hockey is for Everyone initiative is the best move, thanks to Commissioner (Gary) Bettman appointing me to the diversity program."

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