To understand why Willie O’Ree is entering the Hockey Hall of Fame in November as a builder of the game look no further than Ayodele “Ayo” Adeniye.
Adeniye is the latest branch – and a very big one – from the O’Ree hockey tree to bear fruit.
The 6-foot-5 defenseman from Columbus, Ohio, committed last week to play for the University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers, an NCAA Division I team in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, beginning in the 2020 season.
The 19-year-old Adeniye said he’s achieving his dreams by following the hockey gospel according to O’Ree.
“In terms of development, he was just a good role model because there are not a lot of (black people) in hockey,” Adeniye told me recently. “He was always the guy I asked questions and looked up to. I picked his brain a little bit.”
And Adeniye had ample opportunities to do it. His mother, Lisa Ramos, chauffeured O’Ree around whenever he visited Columbus.
“I probably met him over 15 times,” Adeniye said. “For me, Willie getting into the Hall, to me, means the world.”
Ramos said her son bonded with O’Ree, in part, because of their shared history with vision issues.
O’Ree only played 45 NHL games over the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons with the Boston Bruins largely because he was blind in his right eye, the result of a deflected puck.
That didn’t prevent him from having a long and prolific minor league career, scoring 328 goals and 311 assists in 785 games in the old Western Hockey League.
Adeniye suffered from misaligned eyes, a condition that required several surgeries to correct, Ramos said.
“It’s not only the story of him being the first black hockey player, but everything he went through, the issue with his eye,” Ramos told me. “The other thing that Willie does, and it means so much to Ayo, is he always takes time to talk to him. You can see the stars in his eyes when Willie talks to him, even now.”
Adeniye, whose father is from Nigeria, got interested in hockey around age three when he attended a skating birthday party at a local rink. He noticed a high school hockey game on an adjacent ice sheet and told his mom that’s what he wanted to do.
Ramos immediately said “no” because “I didn’t know anything about hockey at all.”
“My grandfather played in the Negro Leagues (baseball), my dad won the state in high jump in track and field, he won the state in cross country, he played basketball for the Army in Europe,” she said. “We had all these different sports, and hockey wasn’t one of them.”
But Adeniye persisted. When his mother put him in a tyke basketball program, he moved about the court in ice skating motions instead of running like the rest of the children. Ramos got the hint.
“My mom said ‘Whatever,’ put me in hockey, and I fell in love,” he said.
Hockey didn’t always love him back. At one point, Adeniye was cut from the Ohio AAA program. Instead of sulking, he remembered one of O’Ree’s favorite sayings: “If you can, you can. If you say you can’t, you’re right.”
Extremely excited to announce my commitment to play Division 1 hockey at @uahhockey ! Huge thank you to my family and friends for always supporting me as well as a huge thank you to @CIHockeyClub @AAABluejackets @CPCANADIANS @mnhockeycamps ! #unitedwecharge pic.twitter.com/mkDHlL0kmd
— |AYO| (@AfricanHockey) July 12, 2018
He became a hockey nomad to improve his game. He joined the Cleveland Junior Lumberjacks U16 team of the Eastern Junior Elite Prospects League in 2014-15; the Florida Eels of the United States Premiere 3 Hockey League in 2015-16; the USPHL’ s New Jersey Hitmen along with the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League’s North Jersey Avalanche U18 squad and Iowa Wild AAA U18 team all in the 2016-17 season.
He returned to Columbus last season and played 33 games for the Ohio Blue Jackets, contributing a goal and 7 assists from the blue line. He had 30 penalty minutes.
Adeniye patterns his game after Columbus Blue Jackets All-Star defenseman Seth Jones.
“One hundred percent. I want to consider myself a two-way defenseman, but I’m more of a defensive defenseman with offensive abilities, just like Seth,” Adeniye said. “He can join the rush every once in a while and he’s a pretty good lock-down defenseman. I try to play the same game. I look at his speed, I watch his positioning.”
He met Jones once and offered the 23-year-old NHL veteran a bit of advice: Watch your back.
“I told him, as a joke, ‘I’m taking your spot,'” he said. “‘Give me about five, six years, I’m taking your spot.'”
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