NHL trailblazer Willie O’Ree says retirement of Bruins jersey is an honor

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Willie O’Ree arrives for a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File) The Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) — Willie O’Ree enjoyed many honors in his life, from becoming the NHL’s first black player in 1958 with the Boston Bruins to his Hall of Fame induction hockey in 2018.

But the 86-year-old says the retirement of his No. 22 jersey in Boston on Tuesday will rank close to the top.

  • Barry Chin

    Bruins to retire Willie O’Ree’s No. 22 jersey, NHL’s first black player

“It was something I never dreamed of,” O’Ree said in a phone interview Monday. “I was very lucky to be called up to the Bruins in 1958 and to have played with them in 1960 and 1961. And then all of a sudden finding out that my jersey is going to be taken off and hung up there with the local icons and legends that are up there right now, it’s just amazing.

O’Ree had his breakthrough moment on January 18, 1958, when he faced the Montreal Canadiens. He will be the 12th player in Bruins history to see his number rise to the rafters.

He had planned to be in attendance for Boston’s game against Carolina on Tuesday, but continued concerns about the pandemic changed those plans. He will now compete virtually from his home in San Diego.

“I was disappointed,” he said. “I have a lot of friends in the Boston area and fans that I’ve known over the years. … With the virus, we just felt that for our own safety, we weren’t going to make the trip.

O’Ree, who hails from Fredericton, N.B., played two games with the Bruins in the 1957-58 season, spent the next two seasons in the minors and returned to Boston for another 43 games in the during the 1960–61 season, scoring four goals and 10 assists in his 45 total games. He was traded to the Canadiens in 1961, but never returned to NHL level.

Coinciding with Tuesday’s ceremony, the NHL’s Black Hockey History Museum is in Boston this week. He will visit 28 cities across the United States and O’Ree’s native Canada this season – the most cities visited to date. He was at the Bruins practice facility on Sunday and will stop at TD Garden before Tuesday night’s game.

The 525 square foot museum highlights trailblazers and history makers like O’Ree, as well as league founders and Stanley Cup champions. It also looks to the next generation of young stars, NHL officials, broadcasters and women in the game.

O’Ree has focused on the future of the NHL since retiring from the sport. And since 1998, he has worked for the NHL as an ambassador for diversity, working to foster greater inclusion and combat the racism that still exists in the league.

O’Ree has previously said that while he felt embraced by his teammates in Boston, his short stint in the NHL was not spared the racism that permeated the Jim Crow era in the United States at that time.

“When I broke in with the Bruins in 1958, I heard racial remarks and racial slurs from fans in the stands and from opposition players,” O’Ree said. “But it didn’t really bother me. And I have to thank my older brother, who was not only my brother and my friend, but he was my mentor and taught me many things that I would need to know. He says, ‘Willie. If people can accept you for the individual you are, they can. It’s their problem. Go out and work hard and stay focused on what you want to do. And basically, that’s what I did.

O’Ree said he’s proud of the work he’s done talking with young people at hockey clinics in hopes of diversifying the sport he loves.

“I just want to be remembered not just as the first black player to play in the NHL, but just as someone who wanted to get involved with boys and girls and help them set goals and help them achieve their goals and feel good about themselves and like themselves,” he said. “I think it’s very important.”

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