Wednesday night’s game between the Bruins and Canadiens was eventful to say the least. It was Claude Julien’s first game back at TD Garden. Rene Rancourt announced his retirement. And the Bruins, along with the NHL and the city of Boston, honored Willie O’Ree on the 60th anniversary of his groundbreaking debut as the first black player in the NHL.
There was a lot to take in, and the Garden crowd responded well. Rancourt received a big hand before he performed the anthems, and Julien was given a lengthy standing ovation when the Bruins played his tribute video. But O’Ree’s ceremonial puck drop brought the most enthusiastic crowd response of the night, as was proper.
And that made the quick video and puck drop, well, a bit underwhelming.
Sure, a longer video with thankful messages from players around the league was played during intermission, but too many folks were at the concessions and restrooms to see it. And yes, Boston mayor Marty Walsh declared Thursday “Willie O’Ree Day” in Boston at a nice little media event earlier in the day. They dedicated a street hockey rink in Allston to him. But it’s all just lacking for such an important figure in the history of the NHL, isn’t it?
As the first black man to play in the NHL and as an inspiration for so many diverse young people to play hockey, Willie O’Ree should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame. At a minimum, he should have his number 22 retired by the Bruins.
O’Ree had to endure racial slurs, cheap shots, and an unwelcoming culture to reach his dream of playing in the NHL. By the time he got the call in 1958 he had lost virtually all of the vision in his right eye after taking a puck to the face. He managed to keep the injury a secret. Legendary.
Since 1998, O’Ree has actively worked in an official capacity to grow the game as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador. He has travelled the country, encouraging and inspiring kids to play. The NHL says he has “helped the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative introduce more than 85,000 boys and girls to unique hockey experiences.” His favorite phrase “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right” is the centerpiece of a mural unveiled in his honor on Wednesday.
The NHL has gone out of its way to say the right things about inclusion in hockey. Hockey is for Everyone is a great program. The league is part of the You Can Play initiative, which is wonderful. Slurs and discrimatory language are suspendable. That’s good.
But diversity and inclusion seem like things the league is interested in at its own convenience: Anniversaries like this one make for obvious phot-ops. Putting a a 60th anniversary seal on the Bruins’ jersey and on the ice is easy. Just make a design and mark it on the calendar.
Why not be proactive for once and push for O’Ree to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. If you don’t think he could get the votes as a player (he had 14 career points, but who cares), do it as a builder. It’s impossible to argue that O’Ree hasn’t substantially contributed to the growth of the game.
And if the Hall of Fame won’t include him, then the Bruins should take the initiative to retire his number. His breakthrough came with the eight-spoked B on his sweater, and that should be a point of pride for the organization. The 60th anniversary was a great opportunity to finally hang up his number, but then again, so was the 50th.
It’s been 60 years. Willie O’Ree is 82 years old.
The NHL and the Bruins should give the man his due, by cementing his legacy as truly integral to the sport. In so doing, they would send the right message, however late.