BOSTON -- Kids participating in the Willie O'Ree Skills Weekend got a surprise Saturday after watching the Edmonton Oilers defeat the Boston Bruins 4-1 at TD Garden.
So did O'Ree.
The 80 boys and girls from 17 Hockey is For Everyone programs from across the United States and Canada received a locker room visit from Bruins forward Brad Marchand as they prepared to play their own games in TD Garden after the NHL matinee.
"I hope you had fun here," Marchand said. "Sorry we didn't have the best night but it's great having you here."
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O'Ree received a surprise drop by from Marchand outside the locker room. Wayne Gretzky sought O'Ree out after the game and chatted with him briefly.
"I don't know if words can describe what he's done, what he's accomplished," said Gretzky, the NHL's all-time leading scorer with 2,857 points (894 goals, 1,963 assists). "I'm a huge sports historian, right? I love Jackie Robinson, he's one of my favorite athletes ever and, of course, I love Gordie Howe. What Willie did for kids in youth hockey is amazing."
Marchand presented O'Ree with a framed photo on behalf of the Bruins from the 2018 dedication of a Boston outdoor street hockey rink named in O'Ree's honor to commemorate the 60th anniversary of him becoming the NHL's first black player.
He made his debut with the Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens at the old Montreal Forum.
O'Ree overcame racial prejudice and blindness in his right eye, the result of a hockey injury, to play in 45 games during the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons, scoring 14 points (four goals, 10 assists).
Video: EDM@BOS: Willie O'Ree drops puck on Skills Weekend
O'Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 2018 largely for his accomplishments off the ice working as the NHL's Diversity Ambassador.
He has helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs across North America and inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls to play the game.
Saturday's Bruins-Oilers game was a top-to-bottom experience for the Skills Weekend attendees. They watched the game from two well-catered luxury suites at the top of TD Garden. The event was hosted by the Bruins and SCORE Boston Hockey, a Hockey Is For Everyone affiliate.
"Holy moly!" Josh Gandelman, 10, a player for the New Rochelle (N.Y.) Lightning said as he entered one of the suites. "First you get to be with all your friends and people from different teams to experience this. Second, this is an amazing view that we have. It's so much fun to see a game in general, but for this to happen, it's amazing."
From their perch, the kids witnessed O'Ree and four other Skills Weekend attendees drop a ceremonial puck between Bruins captain Zdeno Chara and Oilers captain Connor McDavid to start the game.
After the NHL game, the kids took to the TD Garden ice and paired off into teams for two 30-minute games with O'Ree looking on.
"It was fun but so stressful because each team was coming at you the second you had the puck," said Ice Hockey in Harlem player Nellie Gonzalez, 10. "Playing on an NHL rink, it was much bigger so there was more space around to get away from them. It was much easier to score goals."