The history-maker took a walk through history Wednesday.
Willie O’Ree, the National Hockey League’s first black player and soon-to-be Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., for the first time.
O’Ree, along with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, saw artifacts and exhibits that chronicle the black experience from slavery to the segregationist Jim Crow period to the civil rights era to today’s times.
O’Ree, the NHL’s diversity ambassador for the league’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative, eyed tributes to game-changers like him, including a statue of a sliding Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
“What black people had to go through then,” O’Ree, 82, told me. “We take a lot of things for granted but, boy, if you went through that museum it would open your eyes up – it definitely would.”
The tour left Bettman awed and inspired as well.
“I thought it was amazing,” the commissioner said. “I’m a history buff, there is an incredible amount that I learned, there’s more to be learned, and I look forward to going back.”
The commissioner noticed one thing that the museum is missing: hockey.
“Among the sports, hockey doesn’t have a presence and, perhaps, we’d like to see one,” Bettman said. “I think we have a story to tell as well. And most people aren’t aware of that story. And to have an opportunity to tell it as part of the overall museum…having a place among the other sports would not only be appropriate but would be good for people to know.”
Damion Thomas, the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s sports curator, said hockey “is an area we would like to collect around and it’s something that we’re planning on doing in the future.”
Thomas was thrilled to have living history in the museum in the form of O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first black player on Jan. 18, 1958, when he skated for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens in the old Montreal Forum.
“I love sharing this history with everyone but it takes on a different meaning when you’re able to share this history with a history-maker and to be able to see how he responds to moments that he lived through and how he’s able to contextualize his own experiences within this much larger moment and space in time,” Thomas said.
He added: “One great things is that when you come to our museum it helps provide context to a lot of things Willie O’Ree went through and a lot of the challenges that he faced and how different aspects of society responded to those challenges.”
O’Ree will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Nov. 12, along with Bettman, former New Jersey Devils goaltending great Martin Brodeur,Tampa Bay Lightning forward Martin St. Louis, Russian hockey star Alexander Yakushev, Canadian women’s hockey star Jayna Hefford.
O’Ree, a right wing from Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, only played 45 NHL games over two seasons with the Bruins, tallying 4 goals and 10 assists.
He enjoyed a long and productive minor league career, finishing as the 16th all-time leading scorer in the old Western Hockey League with 328 goals and 311 assists in 785 games, despite being blind in his right eye.
But O’Ree became Hall-worthy for his accomplishments off the ice. He has helped cultivate a generation of minority hockey players and fans by working tirelessly as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador since 1996, traveling across the United States and Canada to visit youth hockey programs affiliated with the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative.
Video by Thomas Mobley/National Museum of African American History and Culture.
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