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Sixty-three years is a long time to wait to do the right thing. But the phrase “better late than never” exists for a reason, we suppose.
On Tuesday, nearly 63 years to the day after Willie O’Ree broke the color barrier in the NHL with the Boston Bruins, the team announced that O’Ree’s number will be retired in a ceremony next month and raised to the rafters at TD Garden.
If that seems like something that should have been done a long time ago, you’re correct. A better time would have been the 25th anniversary or 50th anniversary or even the 60th in 2018, when the Hockey Hall of Fame at long last inducted O’Ree in the builders’ category.
But the best way to right a wrong is to fix it, and so it’s being done. Thankfully, O’Ree, now 85 years old, is still with us to receive the honor.
And now it’s time for the NHL, which despite its “hockey is for everyone” catchphrase continues still to struggle mightily with issues of diversity and inclusiveness, to take its cue from the Bruins and retire O’Ree’s No. 22 throughout the league.
Having been called up to Boston from the minor league Quebec Aces to replace an injured player, O’Ree made his debut on Jan. 18, 1958. He only played two games with the Bruins before being sent back, but returned to the club in the 1960-61 season and played 43 games, with four goals and 10 assists.
His first goal, which was the first for a Black player in the NHL, was the game-winner against the rival Montreal Canadiens on New Year’s Day 1961.
O’Ree’s NHL career was brief, but impactful nonetheless. Growing up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, he knew of Herb and Ozzie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre, an all-Black line with the Aces. O’Ree believes Herb Carnegie, about 16 years older than him, was good enough that he could have been the been the one to make history and make an NHL appearance. But that would instead fall to O’Ree.
Media were quick to call O’Ree the “Jackie Robinson of hockey,” but as he has said, “I was the first Willie O’Ree.”
“Throughout the history of the National Hockey League, there have been very few individuals that have had such a profound impact on the league and its culture than Willie O'Ree,” Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs said in a statement. “After breaking the color barrier as a Boston Bruin in 1958 and eventually retiring from professional hockey in 1979, Willie became the ultimate ambassador for improving diversity and inclusion within the game of hockey. The entire hockey world is forever indebted to Willie for all that he has done, and continues to do, for the sport. We are incredibly proud to retire Willie's number and cement his legacy as one of Boston's greatest athletes.”
Within the first 30 seconds of “Willie,” the 2019 documentary about his remarkable life, we hear O’Ree say that he heard epithets in pretty much every game he played, from the n-word to demands that he should be back picking cotton to questions why he was playing “the white man’s game.”
O’Ree said the slurs did not bother him, and friends have said he doesn’t talk much about the racism he endured.
Remarkably, O’Ree was legally blind in his right eye when he made his debut with the Bruins, having taken a puck off the face two years earlier. He had managed to keep it secret and kept playing.
O’Ree is a descendant of American slaves. One of his ancestors, a young man named Paris, escaped the South Carolina plantation where he was held captive at age 15 and headed for Charleston to join the British Army during the American Revolution for a promise of emancipation. His surname, the unique O’Ree, was in British military records as “Oree” which was a phonetic spelling of Horry — the name of the man who owned the plantation from which Paris had escaped.
Seven generations after Paris’s bravery led to his freedom, his descendant needed that same mettle to meet the goals he set for himself at 14 years old: to play professional hockey and to play in the NHL, enduring hatred and bigotry at nearly every stop along the way.
The Bruins traded O’Ree to the Canadiens before the 1961-62 season, which crushed him: Montreal had no room for him on its roster. O’Ree spent the rest of his long career playing for minor league teams, and never got another chance in the NHL.
Twenty years ago, the league approached him about becoming its diversity ambassador, and he has traveled all over North America in the time since promoting the game in communities of color and helping to establish hockey programs in underserved communities.
He’s earned the right to have his number retired league-wide. What O’Ree did, who O’Ree is, should be visible always, in all arenas.
On January 18 every season, every player should don No. 22 as a reminder of his achievement, the progress that’s been made, and the work still left to be done.
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