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O'Ree warmed by gift of old sweater from Bruins' Grzelcyk

NHL pioneer's No. 22 jersey from 1960-61 season had been in house of defenseman's family for years

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

BOSTON -- The sweater had been hanging in the Grzelcyk house for years, just another jersey from the Boston Bruins, a castoff. It had been found abandoned by a trainer, John Grzelcyk believed, perhaps 35 years ago, long after its useful life, and given to him.

At some point, Matt Grzelcyk, John's son and a Boston Bruins defenseman, had started to suspect the history of the small-ish black jersey from the early 1960s, No. 22, that hung in the back of a closet.  

But John, a long-time member of the Boston Garden and TD Garden Bull Gang, said he only realized what it was about seven years ago. He had finally seen a photograph of that No. 22 in a black sweater, after only seeing him in select photos with a white sweater for so long.

It clicked.

John Grzelcyk later said he had wanted to return it, but thought he should wait for an event, perhaps a Hall of Fame induction or an anniversary celebration. This year, the time was right.

On Jan. 17, the sweater finally made its way back to its rightful owner, 60 years after Willie O'Ree made his barrier-shattering debut in the National Hockey League, as the first black player to play in the League.

It was the end of a long day of celebrations, in a week of celebrations, and O'Ree was lounging on a chair near the home dressing room at TD Garden. He wasn't sure why he was waiting, but he had been promised one last surprise on a day, Jan. 18, 2018, which Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had proclaimed as Willie O'Ree Day in the city of Boston, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had gifted him the game sheets from his first game as a member of the Bruins.

This would top them all.

Matt and John Grzelcyk stood in the middle of the now-empty Bruins dressing room. They had the sweater in hand. They passed it over to O'Ree who, surrounded by his family, swiftly realized what he was now holding, as they explained how it had come to be in their possession, how they had not known what it was for so long.

It was now back with him. It was everything.

"I actually don't have words that can really express how I feel," O'Ree said, emotion evident in his face.

 

[RELATED: O'Ree moved by anniversary celebrations | O'Ree making impact 60 years later]

 

The Grzelcyks could see what their gift had meant.

"It kind of hit me right then, just seeing his reaction because I knew it was a big deal, I didn't know it was that big a deal," Matt Grzelcyk said. "Just getting to meet him was crazy."

O'Ree had gone home after the 1960-61 season thinking he would be back with the Bruins. He had no reason to think otherwise. He had played 43 games that season, scoring all four of his career NHL goals and all 10 of his assists.

But he didn't come back. He was traded that offseason, to the Montreal Canadiens, informed by a reporter in a phone call. The Bruins never even let him know that he was no longer a member of their organization.

"When I left the Bruins, I thought that I was coming back," O'Ree said. "I got traded, and the only thing that I was sorry about [was] that I wasn't able to get my jersey.

"I'm just thrilled. I'm just thrilled that I'm holding the jersey I wore back in '60-61. A few years ago."

 

[RELATED: O'Ree lauded as inspiration who opened doors | O'Ree more than pioneer to Subban]

 

It felt right in his hands, seemingly half the size of the jerseys of today, and a wool that O'Ree recalled was hardly a breathable material.

But it didn't really matter then, and it didn't matter now. After so long sitting in the Grzelcyks' house in Charlestown, separated from its rightful owner, it was back with O'Ree, destined to be framed in glass and put up in his house in San Diego.

It mattered that he was the one to wear it, and that it was his again.

"I'm blessed," O'Ree said, holding the jersey tightly. "I really am."

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