BOSTON -- Willie O'Ree was where he loves to be on Friday - - in a rink with children in the city that helped launch his historic NHL career.
O'Ree, who became the NHL's first black player when he joined the Boston Bruins for a game against the Montreal Canadiens in Montreal on Jan. 18, 1958, was in town to preside over the 2019 Willie O'Ree Skills Weekend.
More than 80 boys and girls from 17 Hockey Is For Everyone programs from across the United States and Canada are here this weekend to show off their skills, take in the sights, attend the game between the Boston Bruins and Edmonton Oilers at TD Garden on Saturday, and get some hockey and life lessons from O'Ree, the NHL's Diversity Ambassador, and other prominent speakers.
"Coming here is just a joy for me," O'Ree told the kids after he watched them participate in a skills clinic at Walter Brown Arena, home of Boston University's women's hockey team. "Clinics? People say, 'what is it about clinics that you like?' Thing is, once you get these kids on the ice and work with them 90 percent of the job is done because they want to play, they want to get out there and learn."
The O'Ree Skills Weekend, which ends Sunday with a 3-on-3 tournament at Boston University's Agganis Arena, is hosted by the Bruins and SCORE Boston Hockey, a Hockey Is For Everyone affiliate.
"Kids coming here from our program, two of them had never been in an airplane, never been out of Columbus," said John Haferman, program director for the Columbus Ice Hockey Club in Ohio. "But they all know the story of Willie and they were excited to see him. Just the expressions on their faces, their eyes lit up and they put down their phones."
O'Ree was the main attraction Friday, regaling the young players about his journey that took him from his boyhood home in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada to making his NHL debut in the Montreal Forum for the Bruins and breaking a color barrier.
O'Ree overcame racial prejudice and blindness in his right eye, the result of a hockey injury, to reach the NHL. He played 45 games for the Bruins during the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons, scoring 14 points (four goals, 10 assists).
"He was an important person in life and want to meet and congratulate," said Rosemary Sandridge, 12, a defenseman for the Capital City Crew program of Raleigh, N.C. "He set an example for all of us. He went out there and proved anybody can play hockey."
O'Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 2018 for his accomplishments off the ice, crisscrossing North America as NHL Diversity Ambassador.
He has helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs and inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls to play the game.
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have mounted an effort to award O'Ree the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.