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Willie O'Ree remains influential in hockey

Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation to host skills weekend in Philadelphia

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / Deputy Managing Editor

PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds grew up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, Ontario, playing hockey and watching all the great players of the 1990s and early 2000s.

But the player he admired most retired long before he was born in 1988. 

Willie O'Ree became the first black man to play in the NHL during the 1957-58 season, and his impact continues to be felt for generations.

"Growing up he was my No. 1 role model," Simmonds said. "My parents made sure that was the first guy in hockey I knew -- Willie O'Ree. My parents made sure I knew who he was."

Simmonds will be one of many around Philadelphia who get a chance to remind O'Ree of his importance and influence this weekend at the 2016 NHL/Willie O'Ree Skills Weekend.

The Philadelphia-based Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation (ESYHF), on which Simmonds is a member of the board of directors, will host the event for the second straight year. ESYHF uses hockey to help educate more than 3,000 children, most from low-income households, around the Philadelphia region. 

"It's a real honor to be selected to allow us to have it and help commemorate what Willie has done in his career, his achievements, and breaking barriers that several of our kids are being faced with as well," ESYHF president Scott Tharp said. "He's a great role model. We're just happy to be a part of it."

O'Ree, who watched part of the Flyers' game Thursday against the Edmonton Oilers from a suite with ESYHF players, said he's happy the organization is hosting the O'Ree Skills Weekend again. 

"It's the people that are involved with the program," O'Ree said. "They generate electricity with these boys and girls. What they want to do is they want to make it pleasant for these boys and girls to play hockey. And two, the education part is very important. These boys and girls are doing well in school and they stress on keeping their grades up and then the hockey seems to come easy. … This is, I would say, the best program that's in the Hockey is For Everyone [initiative]."

The weekend will feature approximately 60 boys and girls of middle- and high-school ages coming from more than 35 HIFE programs from across the United States and Canada. 

They'll take part in skills events at the Penn Ice Rink at the Class of 1923 Arena on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. They'll also visit a number of educational and historical sites around Philadelphia, among them the Franklin Institute science museum, the Rocky statue at the foot of the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and go through leadership and team-building activities at the Philadelphia Outward Bound School. And they'll attend the Flyers game Saturday against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Wells Fargo Center (7 p.m. ET; FS-O, CSN-PH, NHL.TV).

"There's a lot of excitement," said ESYHF executive vice president and COO Jim Britt. "Not just because of the activities but also because they also get to meet other kids like them who might not be a stereotypical hockey candidate, a kid who might not otherwise play. They get to meet other kids from other towns. They get to swap stories about their joint experiences they have in their own hometowns. That helps expand all their minds. They all get a chance to benefit because of the shared experience at the Willie O'Ree Weekend."

The kids also will get the chance to spend time with O'Ree, who is the director of cause marketing for the NHL. O'Ree's story is required learning at HIFE programs, but the 80-year-old makes a remarkable impact in person. 

"Willie is a magnetic guy," Tharp said. "Not only has he broken color barriers, he also transcends the age barriers. He can relate to the kids almost as though he were one of them. He has a great rapport with them. They can't wait to see him every year."

O'Ree said spending as much time around children helps keep him feeling young. 

"I have as much fun as they are," he said. "Being around boys and girls keeps you feeling young and thinking young. That's why I'm able to travel around the past 18 years and be with these boys and girls and see them develop into good little hockey players." 

The kids aren't the only ones who get excited to meet O'Ree. Flyers forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare grew up in France but knew O'Ree's story.

"Without him we wouldn't be here," Bellemare said. "I am Caribbean; my father is black, all my family on my father's side is black. Without a man like [O'Ree] to take the first step to be in the NHL it wouldn't be possible for us. … It was a once-in-a-lifetime exchange.

"If you count [black players] through the years there's more and more. But when he started he was by himself. The fact that he had the mental strength to stay with it. … I don't know the whole story but I'm 100 percent sure it wasn't something easy for him to do. It took sacrifice for him to do for us to be able to be here today."

Bellemare said one of his favorite photos is a picture of himself, Simmonds and former teammate Ray Emery with O'Ree taken in the Flyers' locker room last season. 

Simmonds has his own special picture of O'Ree. It was taken at an autograph signing they did together at the NHL Powered by Reebok Store in Manhattan following a day-long Hockey in Harlem event.

"I have that picture and I got him to sign it," Simmonds said. "My dad has that in his man cave in his basement. Anytime I go to his house and I see that picture, it brightens up my day.

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