PHILADELPHIA -- Willie O'Ree has a simple mantra that he passes along to the children he speaks with through his role as NHL Diversity Ambassador.
"I always tell these kids, if you think you can, you can, and if you think you can't, you're right," O'Ree said. "And there's a lot of truth to that. You only get out of a thing what you put into it."
O'Ree will bring that message of hard work and fun through hockey to more than 100 children from 17 Hockey Is For Everyone programs throughout North America this weekend at the 2018 NHL Willie O'Ree Skills Weekend.
Hosted by the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation (ESYHF), the children will take part in on- and off-ice events throughout the city.
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"I'm thrilled that I'm here in Philadelphia again," O'Ree said. "Pleased that the kids are going to be here and hopefully they have fun. I obviously put it first on my agenda that they come and have fun and work on their skills. I think that I'll meet some new faces, which I obviously enjoy, and talk to the kids about goal setting and working hard and be all that you can be."
ESYHF is just as thrilled to host O'Ree and the skills weekend.
"It means the world to us," ESYHF president Scott Tharp said. "He's such a great role model and serves as such a great example to our kids. … We tell the folks at the NHL you're going to have to snatch this weekend away from us because it really does mean a lot to us and we're very, very proud to be able to host it."
Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds is a co-chair for the event, and was honored to be part of the planning despite being on the road this weekend. The Flyers played at the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday, and after practicing in Columbus on Saturday will fly to New York for a game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
"Just to have my name attached to Mr. O'Ree's is such an honor," Simmonds said. "He's such a huge ambassador for the game and has been. He's full of life and does everything in his power to spread the game."
Among the weekend events are a banquet at the National Liberty Museum, an education session at the National Constitution Center and a skills competition at the Class of '23 Arena at the University of Pennsylvania.
And O'Ree will be front and center for all of it, talking with the children and sharing his story, from the loss of sight in his right eye as a junior player to being first black man to play in the NHL, on Jan. 18, 1958, with the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens.
"I've been retired from professional hockey since 1980 but I've always had hockey on my mind, had hockey in my blood," said O'Ree, 82. "To see these boys and girls just get out there and work on their skills and have fun, there's nothing more rewarding to help these boys and girls become better citizens, become better hockey players by working hard. There's no substitute for hard work."
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O'Ree said he never tires of meeting with children throughout the continent.
"When you know you're going to meet some kids or going to a school to give a presentation or do a clinic, it just pumps me up," he said. "What keeps me young is being around these boys and girls. They keep you thinking young and feeling young. That's a nice feeling."
O'Ree's ability to interact with the kids is something that Tharp says his coaches can use.
"It's an amazing lesson for our coaches to see because it shows them what it takes to really get through to the kids," Tharp said. "To get down on their level, to get down on one knee when talking to them, to look them in the eye and to really make the kids feel special.
"When Willie talks to you … you can't fool kids. When Willie talks to you, they realize he's looking straight at them and he's relating directly to them. He's not doing it for any other reason except that he's totally interested in what they have to say."
Among the kids taking part are four from the Capital City Crew program in Raleigh, North Carolina.
"Hockey is very expensive to play and not everyone is able to get on a sheet of ice and play the sport of hockey," said Ashley Hohenberger, a coach with the Capital City program. "Some of these kids have a passion for hockey and never knew it until they stepped foot on the ice for the first time."
Jachelle Dixon, 13, fits that profile. She said she never knew how much she loved hockey until she started playing this season. She's taken the time to learn about O'Ree and his story and is looking forward to meeting him this weekend.
"Meeting Willie is a great pleasure and honor," she said. "To meet him and learn about him, I'm going to enjoy this as much as I can."