Willie finally got the call from the Hall.
Willie O’Ree, the National Hockey League’s first black player, received a call from the Hockey Hall of Fame Tuesday afternoon informing him that he’s a member of the Hall’s 2018 class.
“I was in tears,” O’Ree told me. “I’m walking on air, I can’t believe it. Unbelievable what this day has been, my God. It’s one of the greatest days I’ve experienced.”
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O’Ree, 82, will be formally inducted into the Hall in the Builder category on Nov. 12. The other 2018 inductees are former New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur,Tampa Bay Lightning forward Martin St. Louis, Russian hockey star Alexander Yakushev, Canadian women’s hockey star Jayna Hefford, and NHLCommissioner Gary Bettman.
O’Ree will become the Hall’s third black member. Edmonton Oilers goaltender Grant Fuhr, who won five Stanley Cup championships, was inducted in 2003. Angela James, a Canadian forward who is regarded as the “Wayne Gretzky of women’s hockey,” followed in 2010, the first year the Toronto-based Hall began inducting women.
Whenever people asked O’Ree about his chances of someday getting into the Hall of Fame, he would calmly say “that would be nice” and add “whatever will be will be.”
However, the O’Ree household in San Diego was anything but calm Tuesday. O’Ree, Bryant McBride, a former NHL executive vice president, family members, and others nervously gathered in the kitchen at 7:30 a.m. Pacific Time to wait for the phone to ring.
“There were four or five of us in the kitchen, just looking at each other,” McBride said.
“We were just pacing back and forth,” O’Ree added. “We knew if there was a call, it was going to come in around noon. We had about four hours of pacing back and forth.”
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 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.
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But O’Ree became Hall-worthy for his accomplishments off the ice. He 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.
So instead of seeking his Hall entry as a player, O’Ree’s supporters launched a drive for his induction in the hockey shrine’s Builder category, focusing on his contributions as a mentor, role model, and advocate in growing hockey in communities previously overlooked by the sport.
A Builder must exhibit “Coaching, managerial or executive ability, or ability in another significant off-ice role, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general,” according to Hall rules.
O’Ree fits the criteria because he’s been an inspiration to a generation of young hockey players and hockey fans of color.
Willie O’Ree has the respect and awe of players across the NHL. From left to right: forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, now with the Vegas Golden Knights, Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, O’Ree, and former Flyers goalie Ray Emery (Photo/Philadelphia Flyers).
“This honor is long overdue as Willie has been a tremendous figure in our game both on and off the ice for over 60 years,” said Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs. “We are lucky to have been able to call Willie a Bruin when he made his debut in 1958 and we could not be happier for him to finally receive the recognition he so greatly deserves.”
O’Ree’s Hall admission is a testament to a grassroots movement of NHL players, past and present, elected officials across North America, and thousands of hockey fans who thought it an injustice that he wasn’t inducted years ago.
Brenda and David Sansom, longtime friends of Willie O’Ree, helped launch a public submission drive urging the Hockey Hall of Fame to induct that NHL’s first black player.
David and Brenda Sansom, friends of O’Ree from Fredericton, helped put together a 76-page public submission to the Hall’s Selection Committee. They also collected more than 300 letters, notes, and expressions of support on O’Ree’s behalf.
The Sansoms received letters from Karl Subban, father of Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban,Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Malcolm Subbanand LosAngeles Kings defensive prospect Jordan Subban; San Jose Sharks forwardJoel Ward; former NHLersDanny Grant and Mike Eagles; Boston Mayor Marty Walsh; NewBrunswick Premier Brian Gallant; and Fredericton Mayor Mike O’Brien.
Willie O’Ree made history when he entered the NHL with the Boston Bruins in January 1958.
“Willie O’Ree’s story must not be forgotten,” Karl Subban wrote. “He made it possible to have the NHL dream and to believe they could achieve it. He changed hockey, which is now for everyone. Hockey needed him and so does the Hockey Hall of Fame. The time is right!
NHL players like Ward and Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds publicly pressed for O’Ree’s admission almost every chance they got. Simmonds penned an article in The Players’ Tribune in April, declaring that “Mr. O’Ree should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame…Mr. O’Ree should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame yesterday.”
The call to put O’Ree in the Hall also reached Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Hockey Caucus, took to the floor of the House of Representatives in March and called O’Ree “a trusted champion for diversity, a proponent of inclusion, and an inspiration for so many young players both on and off the ice.”
Fredericton Member of Parliament Matt DeCourcey told the chamber in February that “hockey fans around the world share the view that it is past due time that Willie O’Ree be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
O’Ree will get his time, and his due, in November.
“Unbelievable,” O’Ree said.
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