“My Heart And My Mind Were Set On Making It To The NHL” | Willie O’Ree, First Black Player To Play In NHL Game, Honored By Boston Bruins Retiring His Number

(Photo: Getty Images)

Willie O’Ree, the first Black player to play in an NHL game, had his number 22 retired by the Boston Bruins on Tuesday, Jan. 18. His name and number was hoisted to the rafters of TD Garden, 64 years to the day he became the first Black NHL player when he debuted with Boston against the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum in 1958.

“From a young age, my heart and my mind were set on making it to the NHL. I’m grateful and honored that it was with the Bruins,” said O’Ree, in a speech delivered virtually.

NHL Pioneer Willie O’Ree Inducted Into Hockey Hall of Fame

O’Ree, his wife, Deljeet, and daughter Chandra watched the ceremony in San Diego from Chandra’s home. The 86-year-old Hockey Hall of Famer opted not to make the cross-country trip to Boston due to the concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

“To the Bruins fans, I am honored to have had the pleasure of playing before you,” said O’Ree, shown speaking on the video board at TD Garden. “Thank you for your tremendous love and support. This is an unforgettable day. I am overwhelmed and thrilled to be a part of the Bruins forever. Thank you.”

O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 2018 in the Builders category. A life-size bronze statue of him resides in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., as part of a Black hockey exhibit.

Hockey in North America, and the world, has been a predominantly white sport. O’Ree broke the color barrier and played a big role in not only making the sport diverse, but inclusive.

He became the NHL’s diversity ambassador in 1998 and has helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs in North America as part of the “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative, inspiring more than 130,000 boys and girls to play the sport.

Through the NHL and NHL Players’ Association’s, “Hockey Is For Everyone” campaign, the league and various partners and stakeholders are working not only to make the demographics of the sport more in line with the world, but also to make the spaces in and around the sport more welcoming.

Reporter Evan Moore made note of the slippery racial slope for Black players trying to break into hockey at every level in a TSL article entitled “Soul On Ice Part II- The Infusion Of Culture In Hockey”

“The stories of overt and covert racial vitriol toward Black hockey players in Canada, or in America, weren’t exclusive to those who were fortunate to play in the National Hockey League. From youth hockey to the college game, many went through very similar struggles.”

The honor for O’Ree was a long time coming. Current Bruins players took the ice in special edition jerseys with Willie O’Ree patches on them — his number 22 inside their logo, with his two NHL seasons listed underneath. The players also wore number 22 in warm-ups.

Inside their dressing room, their lockers had commemorative nameplates with the patch and a photo of O’Ree. The TD Garden ice had No. 22 decals installed behind both nets, where they will remain for the next three home games in Boston.

“Coming up and breaking the color barrier was just fantastic,” O’Ree recalled later Tuesday night. “I didn’t realize I broke the color barrier until I read it in the paper the next day.”

Following the celebration Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy talked about the team honoring a pioneer.

“I think it’s a great honor for Willie,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. “He’s a trailblazer to say the least. I’m very happy for him and his family.”

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