NEW YORK -- Current and former NHL players were on hand to honor Willie O'Ree, the first black player in the NHL who is an ambassador for diversity in hockey, at the 2017 Winter Sports Celebration in Tribeca on Wednesday.
"Willie not only means a lot to me but a lot to the game of hockey," Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban said. "That's what this is about. Remembering someone that had an impact in the game, that helped grow the game, and that's what Willie represents not only to me but for all kids who want to play the game of hockey. He's a Hall of Famer."
O'Ree, who broke the NHL color barrier in 1958 when he played two games for the Boston Bruins, has worked with the League as the director of the Hockey Is For Everyone program since 1998. A live auction and a silent auction on a variety of items, including tickets and signed jerseys and pucks took place, with the proceeds going to support 250 children from Ice Hockey in Harlem.
"Hockey is a very expensive sport," O'Ree said. "You need to wear all the protective gear and it costs about $700 dollars and a lot of these families can't afford it. So we make it affordable. If these kids want to play hockey and can't afford it, we will pick up the tab. And if they don't like it, they can walk away."
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Subban said he was inspired by O'Ree and knows that some who look up to him want to be hockey players but might not have the money for it. Ice Hockey in Harlem's mission is to change that.
"It's about making the game accessible to all kids and for everybody," Subban said. "Growing up as a kid, hockey was not cheap. Now I think with the programs including this one, we're able to help kids be able to play the game and live out their dream if they want to be a hockey player. If we can remove those barriers of expenses and all those different types of things, then maybe we could get some more of them to play the game."
O'Ree said he has seen a lot of progress with minorities involved in hockey, helped by Hockey Is For Everyone month.
"It's been great," the 81-year-old said. "It's been growing every year. More boys and girls are playing hockey today than ever before. I tell these kids that you can do anything you set your mind to."
Former NHL player Anson Carter, who played for eight teams from 1997-2007 and is an analyst for NBC and MSG, said he owes his career to O'Ree, who played two seasons for Boston and had four goals and 14 points in 45 games.
"I met Willie when I played in Boston (1996-2000) and our relationship developed from there," Carter said. "There has to be a first, and we couldn't have a better role model and we couldn't have a better ambassador for the sport of hockey.
"Hockey in Harlem does a tremendous job growing the game from where it's come from from when I was here in New York (2002-03). Every year it just keeps getting better and better, and that's all you can ask for for a program like this where it continues to inspire kids of all colors to play this great game of hockey."
Hockey Hall of Famer Rod Gilbert has been helping the cause for 27 years. In 1989, the Los Angeles Kings and Wayne Gretzky held a clinic in Harlem that made the former Rangers player want to get involved.
"I was upset that the Rangers weren't involved and that the kids were wearing L.A. Kings jerseys," he said. "I told people in the Rangers organization we can't depend on other teams and we needed to do something and that's how I got involved.
"Now the Rangers alumni always help with all of Ice Hockey in Harlem events. I went to Lasker Rink in Central Park to teach kids many times."
Gilbert has gotten to know O'Ree through the years.
"I'm proud and happy that Willie O'Ree is involved," Gilbert said. "It's a great honor for him. He was a breakthrough guy and is still involved in the youth hockey programs today. Hockey is for everyone. It doesn't matter where you live, what color you are, what nationality you are. Hockey is for everyone."