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O'Ree Promotes Diversity Program In Pittsburgh

by Joe Sager / Pittsburgh Penguins

 Willie O'Ree Interview

Willie O’Ree made a special stop in Pittsburgh this weekend.

The first black player in NHL history, O’Ree came to the area Saturday to take part in a full day of activities to promote the NHL’s Diversity Program.

Willie O'Ree

O’Ree, the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and ambassador for NHL Diversity, started the day by attending the Penguins’ morning skate at Mellon Arena. He was joined by young players from the inner-city hockey program, “Hockey in the Hood.” The youngsters made a presentation to O’Ree, who had a chance to meet Penguins forward Georges Laraque.

It’s nearly been 50 years since O’Ree suited up for the Boston Bruins in a game at Montreal and broke the NHL’s color barrier.

“Yeah, Jan. 18, 2008, is going to mark 50 years. It seems like just yesterday when I stepped on the ice at the Montreal Forum,” he said. “There are so many good memories over the years. I can imagine when they celebrate my 50th, it’s going to be quite a milestone for me.”

Now, O’Ree spends his time giving back to the sport he loves dearly.

“I was appointed the director of the diversity program on my 40th anniversary by Commissioner Bettman,” he said. “I have been traveling around Canada and the United States working with our 39 nonprofit programs. Basically, I just do clinics, personal appearances, fundraisers – I am just having a great time. The youth development program in this country is the greatest. I am happy that I am in a position to give back to the community and give back to the sport.”

Following his morning stop at Mellon Arena, O’Ree conducted a street hockey clinic at the Ammon Recreation Center on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District. Then, he attended the Hockey in the Hood practice at the RMU Island Sports Center on Neville Island.

“It was nice to be on the ice with the Hockey in the Hood kids,” he said. “It was nice to just go out there and get on the ice with them and see what their goals are and talk about how they are doing in school and what they want to do when they grow up.”

O’Ree attended the Penguins’ game against the New York Rangers Saturday night at Mellon Arena, too.

“I am really excited about seeing Georges play and Sidney,” he said. “I am really excited about being here and watching him perform.”

And, O’Ree was happy to visit with Penguins Senior Advisor/Hockey Operations Eddie Johnston. The two were teammates with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens during the 1960-61 season.  

“We go back to 1961. He’s a great guy,” O’Ree said. “He’s a super guy to be with and I always enjoy being in his company. I am glad he is with the Penguins organization and doing well.”

O’Ree played 45 games with the Bruins from 1958-61, registering four goals and 10 assists for 14 points. He played pro hockey for 21 seasons, most of those with the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League.

The NHL is commemorating the 50th anniversary of O’Ree’s debut throughout the 2007-08 season. Despite all the recognition, O’Ree just likes helping kids play hockey.

“There are more kids today playing hockey than ever before and more girls playing hockey today than ever before. There are more rinks being constructed, too,” he said. “This gives the opportunities for these kids to get on the ice. I can honestly say, of all the clinics I have been involved with, once I get these boys and girls on the ice, I just tell them I am out here to have fun. If they don’t want to have fun and play, the door is open and they can leave. I have never had one kid leave, so that’s a positive thing right there. I’ll continue to work and travel and work with these boys and girls for as long as I can.”

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