TORONTO – Displaying the humility and determination that’s typified his life and career, Willie O’Ree, the National Hockey League’s first black player, was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame Monday night.
In a moving speech, the 83-year-old pioneer lauded hockey for embracing diversity, but added that there’s still more to do to make the sport more inclusive.
Willie O'Ree reflects on breaking the colour barrier, and the work ahead 👏 pic.twitter.com/ENHcjkFb2T
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) November 13, 2018
And he expects to be at the forefront of the effort.
“Tonight, I am here to tell you that we are not done because the work is not done,” O’Ree told the packed crowd at the induction ceremony inside the Hall in Toronto. “We have barriers to break and knock down, and opportunities to give.”
He urged the audience to “return to your communities, take a look around.”
“Find a young boy or girl who needs the opportunity to play hockey and give it go them,” he added. “You never know, they may make history.”
O’Ree got that chance on January 18, 1958 when the Boston Bruins called him up for a game against the Montreal Canadiens in the old Montreal Forum.
“All I wanted was to be a hockey player,” he said in his induction speech. “All I needed was the opportunity. To be here tonight is simply overwhelming.”
With no 24-hour news cycle of social media, the feat of him becoming the NHL’s first black player was largely confined to the local press. Even O’Ree said he didn’t know he made history until he read about it in the morning paper.
O’Ree’s NHL career was brief, 45 games over two seasons. The fact that he played that many games in the big leagues at all was amazing considering he was blind in his right eye, the result of a being struck with the puck.
But O’Ree’s Hall entry isn’t about his player’s stats. The Hall of Fame’s selection committee admitted him as a Builder, a category reserved for for coaches, general managers, noted broadcasters and others who are regarded as pillars of the game.
O’Ree has worked 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.
He’s also a revered figure to many of the NHL’s players, who seek him out for guidance and advice. O’Ree has been a mentor, role model, and advocate in growing hockey in communities previously overlooked by the sport.
“He’s what a builder is right out of the gate – you couldn’t make a better description of a builder,” said Grant Fuhr, the Edmonton Oilers goaltending great who became the Hall’s first black inductee in 2003. “When you see another person of color playing it gives you that thought that you can possibly play. It opens up a big door.”
O’Ree joins Fuhr and Angela James, a Canadian women’s hockey star who was regarded as the female Wayne Gretzky in her heyday, as the only black members of the Hall of Fame.
Historic moment happening right now. Anson Carter is interviewing Willie O’Ree, Angela James and Grant Fuhr, the three black athletes in the Hockey Hall of Fame. pic.twitter.com/9VUBWx2Mby
— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) November 12, 2018
O’Ree told the Hall of Fame audience that he stood on the shoulders of others, notably the late Herb Carnegie and Manny McIntyre.
Carnegie, his brother, Ossie, and McIntyre, combined to form the “Black Aces,” the first all-black professional hockey line.
“As a teen, I looked up to Herb Carnegie and Manny McIntyre,” O’Ree said Monday. “They paved the way for me. They just never got the opportunity I did.”
O’Ree was enshrined Monday with 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.
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