Today was declared Willie O’Ree day four years ago in Boston. The expectation at the time was that maybe in the not-too-distant future after, O’Ree would receive proper recognition for his time breaking the black color barrier in the NHL.
Funny how life gets in the way of all that.
Now, finally, he will see his recognition. Well-deserved.
O’Ree was, of course, “it” for a shamefully high number of years in-between the first and second black NHL player. In that time, O’Ree was still playing. Black players three four and five came In the time that O’Ree was still playing. By the time he’d hung up his skates for good, a black player was just three years away from winning the Stanley Cup. His 45 games allowed for so many young black men to experience the game at it’s highest level and become superstars, and many more will follow in their footsteps.
But an important fact of his recognition is that while yes, he broke the barrier that has since been passed through by many a talent such as Quentin Byfield, Anthony Duclair, Wayne Simmonds, most of the Subbans, and Seth Jones, his contribution to this sport has been so much more than 45 career NHL games. O’Ree has been beloved by the Bruins and by nearly every person who has ever interacted with him and his incredible story of being a half-blind black kid from New Brunswick who managed to score actual NHL goals, and his subsequent service in championing the game to a younger generation. And as Madison Bowey and so many others have made it clear; it’s worked, and why not? The real magic of Willie O’Ree is that in spite of all he faced, including some 1950’s era racism, including the sluggish nature of hockey culture’s issues with race, he’s faced the challenges he’s faced with the kind of charm of a gentleman athlete, and has gone from trailblazing on the ice to effortlessly using that charm into instilling the love of the game where it matters most; children. The future.
It’s absolutely no wonder that almost every team and city he has played for has honored him. In San Diego his name sits in the rafters for his time with the Gulls. In Springfield, MA his name sits in the rafters for his time with the Indians. In Fredericton the local arena bears his name. The Grzelcyk family recognized his accomplishments, and made sure his original number 22 sweater was preserved for the day he could receive it in person. He has his own day, his own Oh yeah and he’s a Hockey Hall of Famer, I guess. That’s pretty cool.
Willie O’Ree has earned so much more for his time in the sport. While it sucks it that delay after delay has denied him the moment of truth to see his hard work recognized in such a manner...It could only make it clear that Boston loves him that they would find a way to ensure that he receives the ovation he so richly deserves.
That ovation, and hopefully so much more. Because the man deserves it.
Happy Willie O’Ree Day!