TORONTO – Willie O’Ree got his Hockey Hall of Fame ring Friday and Pamela Houston got a thrill watching him get it.
“It’s almost like an Obama moment,” Houston, a member of the Ontario Black History Society said. “First black president, first black hockey player, finally getting recognition.”
O’Ree, the National Hockey League’s first black player, will be formally inducted into the Hall Monday as a member of the 2018 class.
He’ll join New Jersey Devils goaltending legend Martin Brodeur, former Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers sniper Martin St. Louis, Russian hockey star Alexander Yakushev, Canadian women’s hockey star and Canadian Women’s Hockey League Commissioner Jayna Hefford and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman as the Hall’s newest occupants.
The induction ceremony will broadcast live on TSN2 in Canada and NHL Network in the United States.
“This is about the highest award that I’d ever get as far as playing hockey and my work with the ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ program,” O’Ree, 83, said at Friday’s ring presentation ceremony. “I’m blessed.”
Each member of the Hall’s Class of 2018 received generous applause as they received their rings Monday. The clapping was a little louder when O’Ree got his.
“Long overdue,” McDonald told me afterward.
O’Ree has been the league’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.
O’Ree made history on Jan. 18, 1958, when he skated for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens in the old Montreal Forum.
The 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 had 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.
He’ll become the third black person enshrined in the Hall, joining Edmonton Oilers goaltending great Grant Fuhr and Angela James, a Canadian women’s hockey superstar who was regarded as a female Wayne Gretzky.
O’Ree will continue his trailblazing ways by becoming the first person of color to be inducted in the Hall as a Builder, a category reserved for those who have contributed to the foundation of the game.
His plaque will keep company with revered names like Herb Brooks, the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic men’s team hockey coach, “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcaster Foster Hewitt, Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, and Conn Smythe, who built the Toronto Maple Leafs into five-time Stanley Cup champions between 1945 and 1951.
“Those are some pretty big names, and Willie richly deserves to be there,” McDonald said. “You can build in different ways. You can be an owner who’s a phenomenal philanthropist, a great visionary for his hockey team. Or you can be Willie, who has lived a life of setting an example, and such a great example, for so many young people and so many of the older generation to say ‘Wow, this guy is richly deserving of this honor.'”
“It finally means the game is truly growing, it means we’re finally seeing true diversity in the fact we have Willie O’Ree in it (Hall of Fame), women in it,” McDougal said. “It’s incredible because we’ve waited so many years for Willie O’Ree to be in the Hall of Fame – for decades. And the fact that people finally said ‘You know what, this is wrong, Willie needs to be in here’ and the fact that the push finally worked, it’s incredible. It’s great to see.”
Kia Cummings, a 21-year-old Ryerson University sports media senior from Toronto, who interviewed O’Ree Friday as part of a documentary project said she wouldn’t be interested in hockey if it weren’t for him.
“As a Canadian, as a woman of color, as someone who is passionate about hockey, I wanted to take the opportunity to honor him,” she said. “It’s meeting the person who made your dreams a possibility…I have a passion for hockey that goes so much further. If I want to work within a hockey organization I can do that because Willie did it before me.”
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