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O'Ree's bravery helped make him Hall of Famer, former NHL executive says

League's first black player, mentor to youth players, being inducted in Builders category

by Bryant McBride / Special to NHL.com

Bryant McBride was instrumental in bringing Willie O'Ree back to the NHL, where the Hockey Hall of Fame electee is the diversity ambassador for the Hockey Is For Everyone initiative. McBride, cofounder and CEO of media tech startup Burst, was the NHL vice president for business development from 1992-2000. He is working with filmmaker Laurence Mathieu-Leger on a feature-length documentary about O'Ree. Here McBride shares his thoughts on O'Ree, who will be inducted into the Hall on Monday as a Builder, in a special testimonial for NHL.com:

 

The idea to bring Willie O'Ree back to the NHL started with Lou Vairo, the director of special projects for USA Hockey since 1992. Lou and I put our heads together. We wanted to figure out ways to help kids of color get access to the game of hockey. And I knew who Willie was, but Lou immediately said, "We've got to track down Willie O'Ree." I said, "You're right, you're right."

I had to find him, but it was pre-Google! I asked a friend who worked for the FBI and he found him. He told me he was working in hotel security in San Diego. I was like, "What? Are we talking about the same guy?" He goes, "I'm sure, 100 percent. It's him."

I called Willie and he didn't believe me at first, that I wanted to bring him to the NHL. He'd been disappointed before about the prospect of getting back into hockey. He really wanted to get back into the game in some way, but he didn't have that support system. He didn't have that infrastructure. He was loved, just as he is now. Everyone who's met Willie O'Ree immediately knows he's a great guy, but no one was going to go out on that limb and give him a scouting job or groom him for a front office position. He still wasn't given that chance, until we gave him that chance. 

 

[RELATED: O'Ree has influenced generations on way to Hockey Hall of Fame]

 

I explained to him that we were trying to teach people in these underserved areas how to fish rather than giving them fish, and we needed him to help. I was a "suit" sitting in a skyscraper in New York. We needed somebody to be that guy. I had no idea if Willie could be that guy, if he was going to be rough around the edges or just not good with people. But Willie is off the charts. 

One of the first events that he ever did in New York City, Commissioner Gary Bettman was there, and he turns to me and says, "This guy is awesome." 

Yes, Willie is that good at what he does. He connects to people in an amazingly effortless way.

He started to meet people all over North America and he was "quickly" glue to the programs we were working with at the time, which was then called the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force and became Hockey Is For Everyone. And it's worked. It's helped generations of players and families; Willie has truly had generational impact. I really believe that. Because there's all kinds of boys, girls, kids, that realize, "I can do this." Hockey is one-tenth of it. It's about every other thing that they might try. Even if you're 7 years old, just the way he carries himself, you realize, wow, this guy is impressive and important. 

From that one little idea of, "Let's get this guy out there helping local youth hockey programs," Willie took it. Lou and I opened the door just a crack. Willie took that opening and excelled at his job over the past 23 years.

They key to it is that Willie has been authentic. He's just who he is. He's not putting on a show. He's not putting on an act. He's a genuine guy who loves the game and what he does. 

This is a conversation we had a couple of months ago, 20-something years later: I said to him, "What are your best memories?" 

He said, "Working with the kids. It's awesome. It's amazing to go and see these kids light up." 

Video: Bettman, O'Ree at Museum of African American History

I said, "That's awesome. What are you looking forward to?" 

He said, "Working with kids! … The things I look back at, and the things I look forward to, are one and the same. I'm pretty lucky."

There's a little-known secret about Willie that people don't realize: He often gets the game reports from USA Hockey -- I think in Canada as well -- when there's a racial incident. He calls the family, does a little research, and then he calls the kid. Chances are if you've been racially harassed in a game, Willie's probably called you in the last 20 years. No one talks about it. He doesn't talk about it. 

It took so much bravery to do what he did. I'm 53. I never felt the real burdens of Jim Crow. I was born in 1965. I was in the first Head Start class ever. My mom signed me up, and I learned how to read. That's how my family broke the cycle of poverty. Here -- the world's your oyster, go achieve. Willie didn't have that. So that context and that road he traveled, he carries it with him, but he doesn't harp on it. He's never negative.

The thing that exudes from Willie O'Ree more than any other quality is gratitude. He's just so grateful. He's grateful for everything he has, and everything that he does, he does with his heart and he does it well. That's who he is. 

The fact that he is being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame is a testament to the growing inclusion and generational change that he has helped create. This guy is a builder by definition. Already he's impacted generations. His perseverance, his gratitude, that's what the Hall of Fame vote says. He would not be deterred. He wouldn't be stopped. That's why Willie is a Hall of Famer.

When he got the call that he had made the Hall of Fame, it was emotional. I didn't think it was going to be that emotional, but I cried. I cried like a baby. But it was the culmination of almost 80 years of work for him. He started playing hockey at 3 years old. He's 83 now. He's been working his whole life to be told that he belongs in this amazing, elite company.  

I am just so happy for him. Just really happy that he finally got what he deserves. He deserves to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame with the other extraordinary builders of the game.

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