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Willie O’Ree, 1st Black NHL player, reflects on his time in the league

(BOSTON) — The Boston Bruins retired the jersey of Willie O’Ree, the first Black NHL player, on Tuesday night — 64 years to the day of his professional hockey debut.

Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 and currently in line to be the first hockey player to receive a Congressional Gold Medal, the ceremony, which was held at TD Garden, marked another historic moment for O’Ree’s ever-growing, decades-long legacy.

An avid ice hockey player from the age of 5, O’Ree knew he’d wanted to play professional hockey since he was 14 years old.

“I made two goals for myself: to play professional hockey and hopefully one day to play in the National Hockey League,” he said in an interview for ABC News Live on Monday.

He would go on to achieve both.

The Canada native committed himself to the sport, leaving home at 17 years old to play in a junior league.

O’Ree continued to improve his game, but at 20 years old, his dreams of joining the NHL were jeopardized when a puck struck him in the face while playing for the Kitchener Canucks, a junior ice hockey team. The impact shattered his retina, causing him to lose vision in his right eye. He was told that the injury would stop him from playing ever again.

Despite the prognosis, O’Ree said he was determined to continue practicing, so he adapted. As a left-wing player, he would have to turn his head completely to the right to see the puck.

“Forget about what you can’t see, and concentrate on what you can see,” he said he told himself at the time.

Just two years later, he made history when he became the first Black NHL player ever in 1958 at 22 years old. He never told the team about his loss of vision. It would have made him ineligible to play if the league knew.

O’Ree didn’t know the impact he was making at the time, he said.

“I didn’t realize I broke the color barrier until I read it in the paper the next morning,” he said, adding, “I was just so excited that I got the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League and with the Boston Bruins.”

If they can’t accept you for the individual that you are, then that’s their problem
But his time with the Bruins was not without adversity.

Although his Bruins teammates accepted him, as the first and only Black player in the league during the 1950s and 1960s, O’Ree said he was met with racism from fans and opposing players. He said he didn’t allow the bigotry to deter him.

“I knew if I fought every time somebody called me a name that I’d be in the penalty box all the time,” O’Ree said. “So it was hard. It was hard at the beginning. But later on, I did gain the respect of not only the fans in the stands, but the players on the opposition.”

O’Ree credits his older brother Richard with helping him develop the confidence he needed to succeed in a league that was not welcoming to people like him.

“He knew the type of individual I was, and you know, the racism and prejudice and bigotry,” O’Ree said to media after the ceremony. “He knew I could handle that, and he just said, ‘Forget about what other people think about you. If they can’t accept you for the individual that you are, then that’s their problem."”

He was traded to the Montreal Canadiens in 1961, the same team he played against in his NHL debut, and then continued on to play in minor leagues before retiring in 1979.

Over half a century later, Black hockey players still face prejudice from spectators, teammates, and coaches.

O’Ree, now 86, has worked as the NHL’s director of youth development and an ambassador for NHL Diversity for 24 years.

His lifelong dedication to dismantling barriers for athletes of color continues to play a large role in the NHL’s efforts to address the lack of diversity in the league.

The NHL has an initiative called Hockey is For Everyone, which is focused on creating a more inclusive environment for players and fans of all backgrounds through programming that includes the Willie O’Ree Skills Weekend.

“Watching these boys and girls experience everything hockey has to offer is incredible,” he said. “More than 130,000 boys and girls have gone through the programs so far. I look forward to supporting the next generation of young hockey players.”

His passion for ice hockey, helping young athletes set goals and providing a space for opportunity and success have influenced the sport and many who love it over the years.

“There are more Black girls and Black boys and players of color playing hockey today than ever before,” O’Ree said. “So we’re going, we’re going in the right direction.”

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