Bruins honour O’Ree
by Andrew Podnieks|19 JAN 2022
Willie O'Ree during a legends game in 2018 when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
photo: Mark Blilnch / HHOF Images
Exactly 64 years after making his NHL debut at age 22, the first Black person to do so, Willie O’Ree, was honoured by the Boston Bruins in a pre-game ceremony in which his #22 was retired and hoisted into the rafters of TD Garden. It was both a symbolic and fitting tribute for a man who, at age 86, has spent his entire life in hockey, much of it advocating for greater inclusion and diversity, much of it spreading the gospel of stick and puck in corners of the world where the game was traditionally less well-known and appreciated.

“It was the greatest thrill of my life. I’ll always remember this day,” O’Ree said in a radio interview after that first game at the Montreal Forum when he broke the NHL’s colour barrier. 

Not wanting a long trip during the surge in omicron, O’Ree attended the ceremony virtually, from his daughter’s home in San Diego. "To the Bruins fans, I am honoured to have had the pleasure of playing before you," he said via the videoboard above centre ice. "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. To have my number retired and hanging up in the rafters with so many other great hockey players that have played for the Bruins, it's just amazing."

O’Ree’s number was hoisted to the rafters by Anson Carter where it joined eleven others: Lionel Hitchman’s #3, Dit Clapper’s #5, Eddie Shore’s #2, Milt Schmidt’s #15, Bobby Orr’s #4, Johnny Bucyk’s #9, Phil Esposito’s #7, Ray Bourque’s #77, Terry O'Reilly’s #24, Cam Neely’s #8, and Rick Middleton’s #16.

"More than 8,200 players have suited up for at least one game in the National Hockey League's 105-year history," commissioner Gary Bettman noted. "Willie O'Ree is among the select few who made a unique, transformative, and enduring contribution to the NHL. Merely by stepping onto the ice at the Montreal Forum in a Boston Bruins sweater 64 years ago, Willie truly changed our game. He has spent every day since not only living his life as a role model to be emulated and admired but working tirelessly to personally connect with and inspire thousands of children with his life story and life lessons our sport imparts."

In all, O’Ree, a native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, played just two games in that 1957-58 season and 43 more in 1960-61. But he had a long career in the minors, mostly in the WHL, mostly with Los Angeles and San Diego. Incredibly, he sustained a pro career for more than two decades despite being legally blind in his right eye as a result of an injury in junior when he was struck by a puck.

But the greater extent of O’Ree’s legacy comes from the work he did after retiring as a player in 1979. In 1998, the league hired him as a diversity ambassador for its Hockey is for Everyone grassroots initiative, and it was in that capacity that he travelled North America setting up programs that have now helped more than 120,000 kids learn the game. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.

Wayne Simmonds, currently a forward with the Toronto Maple Leafs, tweeted: “Tonight my idol Willie O’Ree’s number 22 will be hung from the rafters (Finally). I can’t stress how much Mr. O’Ree has meant to me and millions of other BIPOC kids who love the game of hockey… Congratulations MR O’Ree.”

"It's a recognition that you deserve. We're pretty proud of you," added Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron.

Unfortunately, the visiting Carolina Hurricanes spoiled the party, scoring five goals in the first period en route to an easy 7-1 win. But no matter. The night belonged to O’Ree, to diversity, to a future that will be the richer for O’Ree’s contributions.