Joel Ward has an idea for the National Hockey League to honor the history and growing impact of black players in the sport: Retire the number 22 Willie O’Ree wore with the Boston Bruins when he became the league’s first black player in 1958.
“I definitely think Willie should be recognized for sure,” Ward told ESPN Sunday, the media day before his San Jose Sharks face the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. “It’s a no-brainer. Without Willie, it would be tough for me to be sitting here today. I definitely think Willie should be a big part of this.”
O’Ree, who serves as the NHL’s director for youth development and ambassador for diversity, skated into hockey history on Jan. 18, 1958 when he played for the Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens at the old Montreal Forum.
A right wing, O’Ree appeared in 45 games over two seasons for the Bruins – 1957-58 and 1960-61 – and tallied 4 goals, 10 assists and 26 penalty minutes. Though his NHL career was brief, O’Ree enjoyed a lengthy minor league career, playing primarily for the San Diego Gulls and the Los Angeles Blades of the old Western Hockey League.
His career minor league numbers: 328 goals, 311 assists, 669 penalty minutes in 785 WHL games; 21 goals, 25 assists, 37 PIMs (penalties in minutes) in the Pacific Coast League; and 21 goals, 24 assists and 41 PIMs in 56 American Hockey League contests.
He enjoyed a long professional career despite playing blind in his right eye, the result of a hockey injury.
O’Ree’s contribution to the game can be measured beyond goals and assists. He’s the godfather to players of color, from pee wees to the pros. It’s not unusual for minority NHLers, from rookies to veterans, to seek him out for advice.
“He’s my elder,” high-scoring Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds told reporters during an O’Ree visit to the team in 2015. “I treat him with respect and let him know I have a lot of admiration for him. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be playing the game today.”
Karl Subban – father of Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, Bruins goaltending prospect Malcolm Subban and Vancouver Canucks defense draftee Jordan Subban – once told me that if one of his boys felt they were wronged in the hockey world, he’d remind them of what O’Ree and Mike Marson, the NHL’s second black player, endured.
O’Ree isn’t in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but he is in the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame and the San Diego Hall of Champions. In 2007, he received the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
But Ward feels the time has come for the NHL to honor O’Ree by retiring his number, the same way Major League Baseball universally retired Jackie Robinson’s 42 in 1997. Ward wears 42 in honor of Robinson.
“It would be great if they did,” Ward told ESPN. “Obviously that’s something that would be a great discussion about. With the amount of respect Willie has around the league, it would definitely be something special if that did come up.”
Ward’s on the cusp of making hockey history himself. Either he or Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley will be the next black player to have his name etched onto the Stanley Cup.
One of them will join goaltender Grant Fuhr (Edmonton Oilers – 1985, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990), goalie Ray Emery (Chicago Blackhawks – 2013), defenseman Johnny Oduya (Blackhawks – 2013, 2015), wing Dustin Byfuglien (Blackhawks – 2013), and netminder Eldon “Pokey” Reddick (Oilers – 1990) as Cup winners.
With the Stanley Cup Final opening Monday, here’s a little more black hockey trivia:
They will surely have company whenever Colorado Avalanche forward Jarome Iginla retires. Playing with the Avalanche, Penguins, Bruins and Calgary Flames, Iginla has tallied 661 goals, 662 assists and 1,273 PIMs in 1,474 NHL regular season games.
Iginla has 37 goals, 31 assists and 98 PIMs in 81 playoff games. He owns two Winter Olympics Gold Medals, earned in Vancouver in 2010 and Salt Lake City in 2002.
He also has gold from the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and 1997 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship.
Iginla, whose father is from Nigeria, will probably have the longest and coolest name on a Hall of Fame plaque if he choose to use the full handle: Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla.
There are at least four ice skating rinks in North America named after black people. Willie O’Ree Place is in Fredericton, New Brunswick; the Angela James Arena in Toronto; Philadelphia’s Laura Simms Skate House in Cobbs Creek Park. Simms was a community activist who pushed the city to build an ice rink in a mostly-black neighborhood.; and The Art Dorrington Rink at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.
Dorrington, a long-time minor league hockey player, began a popular youth hockey program in his adopted city to help kids stay out of trouble and stay in school.