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Hockey Is For Everyone

O'Ree lauded as gentleman, inspiration who opened doors

NHL players share testimonials on landmark moment when Bruins forward broke color barrier on Jan. 18, 1958

NHL.com @NHLdotcom

Sixty years ago, forward Willie O'Ree became to first black player to appear in an NHL game when he skated for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958.

He is not just viewed as a pioneer, but an inspiration to players from all backgrounds that an NHL dream can be a reality.

"He's my idol," Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds said. "I've gotten the chance to meet him several times and he's a great man. Obviously. without him, black players wouldn't be in this league today and I think other ethnicities as well, because he broke the color barrier for everybody. 

"I think of him as hockey's Jackie Robinson. Not a lot of people know his name as well as they do Jackie Robinson's name, but he did the same thing for hockey as Jackie Robinson did for baseball."

NHL.com spoke with several NHL players, from diverse backgrounds, to get their views on O'Ree and what his accomplishments mean to them today. 
 
 

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Vegas Golden Knights forward

"I mean, you can only thank a gentleman like this. If it wasn't for his path, I probably wouldn't be here today, right? A lot of people ask about our path to the NHL, especially me coming from France. I've looked into his career and everything. The things he must have gone through to be here every day and do the thing he loves the most and take whatever he got -- good or bad. Nowadays [black players] are quite a few, actually. It's because of him."

 

Madison Bowey, Washington Capitals defenseman 

"He's a big reason why I'm playing hockey today and why other [black players] have a chance to play in the NHL. It goes a long way what he does. We're definitely proud of him and what he did is pretty huge. He's why I wear 22 because he was the first [black] player to play in the NHL, so he has a lot of history for me and it's definitely a big deal in my life. My dad kind of educated me on him a bit growing up. His story is pretty special and it's something I always think of, too. It's special for all of us. We wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him."

 

J.T. Brown, Anaheim Ducks forward

"60 years ... it's weird to think that if he didn't do what he did I might not be playing. To see what he went through and to put that in perspective for the 60th anniversary is special. Going forward, we still have more room to work and improve. At the same time, we have a lot of people actively trying to grow the game and Willie is a big part of that as well."

 

Anthony Duclair, Chicago Blackhawks forward

"For a young black man like myself, playing the sport of hockey, it was tough growing up. At the same time, just breaking that barrier opens up the door for a lot of us young guys and he was the first to do it. I got to meet him at the [NHL] Draft in New Jersey; it was truly an honor and really eye-opening for myself. He's a true ambassador to the game and I was lucky to meet him.

"Because of him, there are more black hockey players coming up, not just in the NHL but growing up in the minor leagues and stuff like that. For us African-American players in the NHL, we want to keep growing the game and hopefully there'll be more coming down the pipe, not just for our race but any race, really. It doesn't matter where you're from or which language you speak, it's a game for everyone."

 

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild defenseman 

"He means so much. It's guys like him, Jackie Robinson, you go back in the times and look at these historic characters who will go down as heroes. I was so fortunate to meet him a couple of years ago. I worked with a group called HEROES in Calgary, helping less fortunate kids. It's not all kids of color, different minorities, but there's a big group of kids who are black, Asian, mixed kids like myself. For him to do what he did and break down those walls in a game that's predominantly white -- it's kind of hard to say, people don't want to talk about it but it's true -- it's awesome. He's a great guy. You can't believe how witty he is for his age, too. He's a great guy and he still just gives and gives to the community. It's pretty amazing to see what he's still doing."

 

Travis Hamonic, Calgary Flames defenseman

"It was a landmark moment and hockey continues to benefit to this day. The sport continues to grow in all the corners of North America, it's doing very well down south. We're all trying to do our part to grow hockey because this sport has the ability to bring people together regardless of what you look like and where you come from."

 

Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman

"It's awesome, it's a big piece of the game. It opened the door for a lot of African Americans, I think, to come in and play the game. I'm half African American and half-white so I've kind of got both sides of that. 

"He's been through more than any of us have, I'm sure, in his day. It's awesome to meet one of the greats and meet someone that's a part of the history of the game like he was."

 

Boo Nieves, New York Rangers forward 

"It was a long time ago, but it definitely is something when the day comes you maybe sit there for a minute or two and appreciate people like that who were strong enough to break down that barrier that was once there. I feel like it's one of those things where everything happens for a reason. Maybe if he doesn't do it, you hope someone else would, but, if not, maybe this sport would still be predominantly a white sport and I think that it's great that he did it. We're thankful for guys like him."

 

Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres forward

"I was fortunate enough to meet him at the All-Star Game last year and what he did for the African-American community and hockey is awesome. It had to be somebody first and it was Willie and the courage that it took and the path that it paved for guys like myself, I'm forever grateful for him and for doing that. It just takes such a tremendous amount of courage. I owe him a debt of gratitude for sure."

 

T.J. Oshie, Washington Capitals forward

"I think everyone can appreciate what he did. The barrier he was able to break, it's important not only for our sport, but important for America in general, so a pretty special anniversary for the game of hockey."

 

Devante Smith-Pelly, Washington Capitals forward

"Obviously, he was a pioneer in the game. That was a long time ago, way before me. But just reading about him and knowing the barriers he broke, hearing some of the stories about him having to go into small towns and play, and some of the things he had to go through, you're thankful that guys in this day and age don't have to go through what he went through. Obviously, a great pioneer to break the color barrier in hockey and started opening up the game to more minorities."

 

Malcolm Subban, Vegas Golden Knights goalie

"It's huge. Taking that jump there. It's unbelievable. He opened the door for us. I look up to him as an inspiration. He led the way for us to be able to do what we do, so it's pretty cool.

"I met him a couple times, yeah. I met him … I think it was the year before last. He came into our room before a game and we met him. It was pretty cool."

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