The Sabres had a special visitor at practice on Friday as former NHL player Willie O’Ree took in the team’s skate at the Northtown Center in Amherst.
O’Ree, the first black player to appear in a National Hockey League game, is in Buffalo for the 2011 Willie O’Ree Skills Weekend, which is being hosted by Hasek’s Heroes. Now in its third year, the Willie O’Ree Skills Weekend is hosting more than 45 boys and girls from different cities throughout North America and providing them with a cultural opportunity to make new friends and meet former NHL players among other hockey-related activities that they’ll participate in, which included watching the Sabres practice on Friday.
Hasek’s Heroes, founded by former Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek, who will also be in Buffalo this weekend, is a program for low-to-moderate income families that helps provide educational support and athletic development.
“I’m excited about being here and just being a part of the program and watching the kids perform their skills on the ice,” O’Ree said. “I'm very happy that I had the opportunity to come to Buffalo and be a part of the program.
“A lot of these boys and girls have never been on a plane before, and some of them have never been out of their own city... It’s going to be a weekend that they’ll will never forget, and with the Sabres being a big part of it, these kids are going to go back to their hometowns and tell their friends about the wonderful weekend they had in Buffalo.”
In addition to attending practice and Saturday’s game against the Thrashers, the participants in the weekend will also take part in on-ice drills, instruction and a skills showcase, and will listen to guest speakers at Canisius College talk about topics such as goal-setting and academic achievement.
O’Ree became the first black player in the NHL when he debuted for the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958 in the Montreal Forum. He went on to appear in 45 career NHL games with the Bruins while playing 20 seasons of professional hockey despite facing obstacles.
“I tell these boys and girls, ‘you need to set goals for yourself and work toward your goals. There’s no disgrace in failing,’” O’Ree said. “When I played, there were obstacles that I had to overcome. I lost an eye my last year in junior (hockey) and the doctor told me I would never play hockey again. But he didn’t know the dreams and goals that I had set for myself. You have to feel good about yourself and like yourself and set goals for yourself and stay focused on what you want to do. It’s always been my message. There’s no substitute for hard work. If anybody tells you there is, they're lying to you. You only get out of the thing what you put into it.”
Along with O'Ree and Hasek, Hockey Hall of Famers Grant Fuhr and Scotty Bowman will also be in Buffalo this weekend for the festivities.