This took way too long.
I mean way, way too long.
Willie O’Ree overcame slurs, cheapshots, and a secret loss of vision in one eye to break the NHL’s color barrier on January 18, 1958. Sixty years later, he will finally be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, in the “Builders” category.
O’Ree’s Hall of Fame candidacy seemed to come to a head this season, as the Bruins celebrated the 60th anniversary of his groundbreaking moment, spurring a flurry of conversation (including a piece I wrote) as to why such an important figure had not been named to the Hall.
The groundswell seemed to catch the NHL’s attention. O’Ree, who has worked tirelessly as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador since 1998, was suddenly thrust into the spotlight: He appeared in a series of Hockey is for Everyone videos on the league’s site, kicked off a Stanley Cup Finals game, and got his very own “Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award” which he handed out to Darcy Haugan, the late coach of the Humboldt Broncos, in an emotional moment at the NHL Awards.
It appears that the Hall of Fame’s selection committee (a set of 18 white hockey men and hockey-writer men) recognized that the moment to give O’Ree the call was now. After all, the man is 82 years old and has waited more than half a century to receive his sport’s highest commendation. For finally making that call, those hockey men deserve credit.
But what about that half century?
O’Ree’s moment should be hailed, but it must not serve as validation for the several generations of hockey community leadership that tabbed a slew of white players, owners, executives, and league officials for the Hall while O’Ree was left aside. To date, there are 271 players and 105 builders in the Hockey Hall of Fame. None of them are the NHL’s first black player.
Add in O’Ree’s twenty years of service spreading the game to underprivileged youth, and it remains quite clear that hockey has been far too slow to embrace one of its most important representatives. It’s almost as if the most influential people in the sport didn’t believe that the game’s highest honor should go to the man who broke the color barrier on that merit alone. “Sure you broke the color barrier, but we need you to do more.” That attitude (which absolutely exists, just ask my Twitter mentions) works directly against O’Ree’s very program, tacitly insisting that hockey is not for everyone, only those who put up huge stats or make the NHL lots of money. That’s reprehensible and can’t be overlooked.
Ultimately, Willie O’Ree will get to stand on a stage at the Hall and deliver his induction speech, a moment he deserves more than most. On that day, I hope that the cameras don’t spend much time on the old white men patting themselves on the back for making a decision that should have been made long ago. Instead, it’s time they turned to the underrepresented people in the hockey world.
O’Ree’s incredible breakthrough in 1958 wedged the door open for them. Maybe his Hall of Fame induction sixty years later can blow it open and prove that—despite the efforts of some—hockey is, in fact, for everyone.