In 1958, the NHL welcomed its first black hockey player. Fifty-three years later, the League celebrates Hockey is for Everyone Month each February in promotion of the sport’s growing diversity.
|Hockey Is For Everyone Initiatives in Middle Tennessee |
* The Street Pride program and, presented by UnitedHealthcare, is an extension of NHL Street, which partners with more than 40 local community centers to donate free street hockey equipment. In February, they will visit Youth Encouragement Services, Watkins Community Center, Andrew Jackson Boys and Girls Club, the Martha O’Bryan Center.
* Hockey Rules, presented by UnitedHealthcare, is an extension of the Street Pride program that introduces children to the basic fundamentals of hockey during school physical education classes. The Hockey Rules tour will visit Saint Bernard Academy, Harding Academy and Liberty Elementary in February.
* On Feb. 16 and 23, the Preds will host USA Hockey American Development Model Player Clinics at A-Game Sportsplex and Centennial Sportsplex. This clinic allows young hockey players to improve their skills while interacting with Predators players and staff in a fun and challenging environment.
* On Feb. 19 more than 400 members from the Predators Kids Club presented by Delta Dental will be invited to attend a Nashville Predators morning practice at Bridgestone Arena for a behind-the-scenes look as to how professional hockey players prepare on-ice for a game.
* To wrap up Hockey is for Everyone, the Preds will kick off another session of the Get Out And Learn! (G.O.A.L!) program on Feb. 23. G.O.A.L! offers children ages four to eight the opportunity to experience the excitement of hockey without the cost of purchasing equipment.
The Hockey is for Everyone initiative also extends support to youth hockey programs across North America, giving kids from all ethnic and economic backgrounds an opportunity to play hockey.
“It’s a great cause,” Predators forward Joel Ward said. “It should be ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ every month. It’s just good to see a lot of kids get involved in playing the game of hockey, especially a lot of different ethnicities and backgrounds that are still slowly starting to get involved.”
In its 13th year, the Hockey is for Everyone initiative is headed by the very man who broke the game’s color barriers in the 1950s, Willie O’Ree.
O'Ree became the first black player in the NHL when he was called up from the Quebec Aces to the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, to play against the Montreal Canadiens. He played a pair of games during the recall, but later spent time with the Boston Bruins during the 1960-61 season, posting 14 points (4g-10a) in 43 games. He would later spend 15 seasons in the Western Hockey League before ending his playing career with the American Hockey Leagu’es New Haven Nighthawks in 1972-73.
O’Ree, now the director of the NHL’s Diversity Program, said he is blessed to use his experiences to advocate to kids the possibilities of what they can achieve.
“It’s very rewarding to me,” O’Ree said. “Honestly, I’ve been doing this for 13 years, and it just gives me so much pleasure to be able to go get on the ice with these boys and girls and work on their skills or go to a school and go in a classroom and tell them about my experiences and what they can do.
“You have to feel strongly within your heart that you can accomplish something. If you don’t feel strongly within your heart and your mind, then you’re defeating the whole purpose.”
But Hockey is for Everyone is more than just teaching kids about possibilities; it’s about giving them opportunities, and it’s the opportunities that make this initiative so important to O’Ree.
“It’s very special to me,” O’Ree said. “I’ve been asked this question numerous times. They say ‘what makes this the most important thing that you’ve done since you left hockey?’ Well, when I broke into the NHL in 1958, it was a big moment in my life… but when Commissioner [Gary] Bettman appointed me the Director of the NHL Diversity Program, I was able to come in contact with so many boys and girls over the years and make it possible for these boys and girls to get into hockey."
Hockey is for Everyone is compiled of 33 programs that drive home the initiative’s message.
“That’s the great thing about the program – we won’t turn any boy or girl away,” O’Ree said. “The NHL has looked at this program over the years and said it’s a good program. These boys and girls that play never thought they’d have the opportunity to get on the ice and display their skills. So, what we’re doing is we’re getting these boys and girls to play a sport where they never had the opportunity to play before.”
A component of the NHL’s “The Biggest Assist Happens Off the Ice,” Hockey is for Everyone strives to teach kids more than just hockey skills.
“We try and teach these boys and girls not only hockey skills but life skills,” O’Ree said. “When I go into the schools – and I’ve talked to numerous schools, elementary, middle school, junior high, high schools – the first thing I encourage these boys and girls to do is to stay in school and get an education. Education is the key. You can’t go anywhere in the world today without an education.”
The initiative also helps provide kids with a positive outlet through the game of hockey, something Ward, who has been highly involved with the initiative, said helped him growing up.
“Hockey has been great to me,” Ward said. “It’s another opener that allowed me to be creative in my own way. It’s definitely a big positive, and hopefully kids can see that, and not just kids but adults too, that you can put your mind to something and you can achieve anything you want to do regardless of if it’s hockey or being a teacher or what have you.
“As long as you stay focused and put your goals forward, you’ve got a good shot at achieving those. So, that’s pretty much the message, and I hope to continue that trend.”
Ward and the rest of the Predators will hold a variety of events and clinics throughout the month as a part of the commemorative month.
Forward Nick Spaling
said it is a way for the team to share some of their blessings with those who are less fortunate.
“Some people are a little less fortunate,” Spaling said. “We’re so lucky to be here, and for us to be able to give back in any way is great. I think everybody’s happy to do it, and it’s just a good experience for us to give to these kids.”
For goaltender Anders Lindback
, being able to interact with the kids is a special way to recreate for others the memories that had such an impact on his childhood.
“When I was a kid, I just thought if I ever met a hockey player from a higher league in my hometown, it was such a great experience, and I think that’s a thing that kind of motivates you too, makes you want to be even better. It’s a great time to see the kids and how happy their faces are just to hang around us. It reminds me of back in the day.”
Hockey has come a long way since the days of O’Ree’s accomplishment, and with the driving force of initiatives like Hockey is for Everyone, it’s likely that it will only continue to grow.
To the kids who will diversify the future of the sport, O’Ree always leaves them with one expression:
“If you think you can, you can, and if you think you can’t, then you’re right.”