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Willie O'Ree still inspiring young players

First black player in NHL is focal point of skills weekend in Philadelphia

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

PHILADELPHIA -- Terry Reeves has a story similar to most of the teenage hockey players who attended the opening of the 2017 Willie O'Ree Skills Challenge on Friday.

Hockey has helped him find joy despite a rough upbringing, and the 15-year-old from the Hockey in New Jersey program counts O'Ree as a role model.

"I've been through a lot of things, on the ice and off the ice," he said. "After [O'Ree] told me his story, it was like, he went through the same things I went through, so it was up to me to push myself harder and harder just to get through these things."

O'Ree became the first black player in the NHL when he made his debut with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958. 

Video: NHL Director of Cause Marketing: Willie O'Ree

O'Ree, 81, is the centerpiece of the weekend event that has brought 53 middle school and high school-age male and female players from 15 Hockey Is For Everyone organizations across the United States and Canada to the city. They'll take part in on-ice skills work and off-ice activities that will include a visit to the National Liberty Museum, the Philadelphia Outward Bound School for an outdoor leadership course and a screening of the film "Soul On Ice."

"I'm just happy I can still go out and work with these kids and help them set goals for themselves and work toward their goals," O'Ree said.

For the players, getting to meet O'Ree is a memory they'll cherish.

"It's an amazing experience," said Matt Atehortua, 15, from Hockey in New Jersey. "Just the fact that he is the Jackie Robinson of hockey. I was speaking to him Tuesday, he came to the [New Jersey] Devils game … it was just a surreal experience how someone who was the first [black] hockey player is still around and can share his experience with the youths and the aspiring African-American athletes."

O'Ree's story of overcoming obstacles based on his race as well as being blind in his right eye because of an injury sustained when he was hit in the face by a puck during a minor league game is taught at the HIFE programs. 

"Willie is the inspiration and the heartbeat for what we do," said Kevin Hodgson, who works with the HEROS (Hockey Education Reaching Out to Society) hockey program in Calgary. "We talk to our kids about it all the time. … They take a lot of pride in getting to know who Willie is and being the legacy in his story."

Young players aren't the only ones who idolize O'Ree.

"He's my hero in hockey and in life," Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds said.

Jim Britt, chief operating officer of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Program, which is hosting the event, said O'Ree's impact is felt by more than just hockey people.

"When I picked him up at the train station, people in the Amtrak area at 30th Street Station were drawn to him like moths to a flame," he said. "When I dropped him off at the airport last year, the redcaps, everyone, they lifted their head, said, 'I know who you are, I recognize you, it's nice to meet you Mr. O'Ree.' He is an icon."

O'Ree preaches hard work, dedication and belief in oneself as the cornerstones to success on and off the ice.

"Just getting them on the ice and letting them know that they can get out there and they can be anybody they want to be," O'Ree said. "But you have to feel good about yourself, and you have to believe in yourself."

James Fields, 25, met O'Ree at a skills clinic about 15 years ago and is here as a coach and chaperone for four players from the DinoMights hockey club in Minneapolis.

"We refer to him as the Jackie Robinson of the NHL," Fields said. "Love hearing his story, everything he encountered while he was playing, all the hardships he faced even with being blind in one eye. He's an inspiration, especially to a diverse crowd, from an African-American background. … I'd say using his story, everything he's faced, would help us in everything we face on and off the ice, the hardships of coming from a rough neighborhood at home. Just using his story to propel us to move forward and achieve our goals."

O'Ree said Robinson had a tremendous impact on him. Robinson became the first black player in Major League Baseball when he debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. In 1949, O'Ree, who was 14, met Robinson during a trip to New York as a reward for his youth baseball team in Fredericton, New Brunswick, winning a championship.

While playing for the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League in 1962, O'Ree met him again at a luncheon in Robinson's honor in Los Angeles.

"Mr. Robinson turned, looked me in the eye and said, 'Aren't you the youngster I met in Brooklyn?' " O'Ree said. "He met me in 1949 and we met again in 1962 and it made a big impact on me. I was speechless there for a few seconds, didn't know what to say."

O'Ree now has a similar impact on those he meets.

"His story really motivated me," said Shae Terry, a 15-year-old from the HEROS Calgary program. "Nothing can really stop you to do anything."

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