O'Ree Celebrates 50-Year Milestone in Oakland
OAKLAND, Calif. -- In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Willie O’Ree becoming the first black NHL player in history, NHL Diversity and the NHL are coming together for many special events throughout the season at both the local and national levels.
In the Bay Area, O’Ree along with Sharks players Torrey Mitchell, Ryane Clowe and Jonathan Cheechoo (from left to right) visited the Oakland Ice Center on Friday, Jan. 11. O’Ree and the Sharks teamed up to conduct clinics with children of Oakland who have special needs as well as a group of children from the Boys and Girls Club of Oakland.
O’Ree’s visit to Oakland was deemed a great success as hundreds of kids turned out to hear his message about diversity and his initiative that “Hockey is for Everyone.” The kids had a blast participating in the clinics and even had the chance to skate, many for the first time and were also able to interact with the NHL Stars.
|Sharks right wing Jonathan Cheechoo talks with Willie O'Ree at an event at Oakland Ice celebrating the 50th Anniversary of O'Ree's accomplishment. Click here for more photos. (Don Smith/NHLI)|
A select number of City of Oakland officials were on hand to take in the event. Nancy Nadel and Jean Quan were there, along with Jean's Chief of Staff and Pat Kernighan's Policy Advocate. The event went without a hitch due to the collaborative effort of the Oakland Ice Staff in coordination with the City of Oakland.
New Century Transportation assisted in transporting the kids to the event.
The Oakland Ice Center was built in 1995 right in the middle of a planned redevelopment in the heart of downtown Oakland, much of the redevelopment is just starting to come to fruition. It is owned by the City of Oakland, and has been privately managed under contract for most of its tenure. Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment was awarded the management contract of the facility this past year, and just took over operation on Oct. 29, 2007.
SVS&E and the City of Oakland have put together a joint effort to rejuvenate the building and have also put together an aggressive outreach program into the City of Oakland and the Oakland Unified School District. The effort to bring in more local children, provide generous free use programs and scholarships to enable low income participation, and to generally make the facility more entrenched in the community of Oakland has continued to emerge.
For more information about the Oakland Ice Center, please visit www.oaklandice.com.
Reflecting on O'Ree's Legacy, 50 Years Later
The year was 1958. Willie O’Ree had just been called up from the minors and was getting ready to make his National Hockey League debut. This exciting moment in any NHL players life was a little more significant for O’Ree.
When he stepped onto the ice, O’Ree was not just making his first appearance as a member of the Boston Bruins, he was simultaneously making history. On Jan. 18,1958, O’Ree became the first black player to play in an NHL game when the Bruins faced the Montreal Canadians.
His coach and general manager talked to O’Ree before the game and explained to him that the organization supported him 100 percent. They told O’Ree he was a part of the Bruins family and that skin color was not going to alter the way they treated any player. They wanted him to be himself and to just go out and play as hard as he could. That’s exactly what O’Ree did every time he was on the ice.
Montreal fans were familiar with O’Ree because he played minor league hockey with the Montreal Aces before joining the Boston organization. The fans at the old Montreal Forum were warm to O’Ree and treated him like any other player. O’Ree didn’t record a point that night, but provided a spark for a Bruins team that was in last place. Boston wound up shutting out Montreal, 3-0.
However the reception he received in the U.S. was not as warm as it was in Canadian cities like Toronto and Montreal. Other than the home fans in Boston, O’Ree had to deal with the racist remarks that were common with the times. O’Ree never let it get to him. He was much more concerned with playing hockey and being the best player he could be. The support of Boston fans and the Bruins organization made it easy for O’Ree to concentrate on what was important: playing hockey.
O’Ree was able to push the ignorant comments aside because he felt he had an even bigger issue to overcome. Playing in a minor league game months before his NHL debut, O’Ree took a puck to the face that broke his nose and left him 97 percent blind in his right eye. After being examined at a local hospital, the doctor informed O’Ree that his injury wouldn’t allow him to play hockey again. “I felt like my dreams were being taken away from me O’Ree said. But I wanted to prove that doctor wrong. It took me eight weeks to recover, but I started playing hockey again.”
The NHL didn’t perform eye exams at that time, so O’Ree was able to keep his eye injury a secret and continued to play even though he was at a great disadvantage. Despite his disability, O’Ree used his willpower and talent to help him reach his dream of playing in the NHL.
O’Ree only played in two games in the 1957-58 season and although he may not have the most illustrious NHL career, the impact he’s had on the game is immeasurable. In an era marked with racism and ignorance, O’Ree’s determination and strong backbone allowed him to prevail, which subsequently opened the door for black athletes and the future of hockey.
O’Ree served as a pioneer for blacks and people of diverse backgrounds in the NHL. His accomplishments have led to an emergence of black athletes in the League. Most notable are Calgary Flames Captain Jerome Iginla, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Georges Laraque and the Sharks right wing Mike Grier. O’Ree paved the way for many NHLers and gave all black hockey players hope that they could someday play professional hockey.
O’Ree played 45 games with the Bruins from 1958-61. He recorded four goals and 10 assists, all in 1960-61. His long professional career spanned 21 seasons, mostly in the Western Hockey League with the Los Angeles Blades and the San Diego Gulls.
Even now, 50 years later, O’Ree’s impact is still being felt.
With the help of NHL Diversity, O’Ree has been instrumental in helping to provide support and unique programming to not-for-profit youth hockey organizations across North America that are committed to offering economically disadvantaged boys and girls of all ages opportunities to play hockey.
O'Ree serves as the NHL’s director of youth development and hockey ambassador for NHL Diversity, a post he has held since 1998. Since its inception in 1995, NHL Diversity has exposed more than 40,000 boys and girls to unique hockey experiences.
O’Ree continues to work hard in his effort to create a better environment for youth, on-and-off the ice. Over the past decade, O’Ree has traveled thousands of miles across North America, establishing 39 local grassroots hockey programs, all geared towards serving economically disadvantaged youth. “I travel 15 days a month O’Ree said. I go in to inner-cities to encourage kids to play hockey. I find it very rewarding.”
O’Ree has always strongly advocated that “Hockey is for Everyone.” With this initiative in mind O’Ree stresses the importance of essential life skills, education and the core values of hockey: commitment, perseverance, and teamwork. O’Ree stresses to kids that if you believe you can do something and stay strong, then you can achieve anything.
“Right now, there are more girls and boys playing hockey then ever before the 72-year-old O’Ree said. I hope to increase those numbers for as long as I can.”
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of O’Ree becoming the first black NHL player in history, NHL Diversity and the NHL are coming together for many special events throughout the season at both the local and national levels.
In the Bay Area, O’Ree and Sharks players Jonathan Cheechoo, Ryane Clowe and Torrey Mitchell are teaming up at the Oakland Ice Center to conduct clinics with children of Oakland who have special needs as well as a group of children from the Boys and Girls Club of Oakland. O’Ree runs clinics and leagues in inner-cities and allows kids to join for only $50. The fee includes all the hockey equipment that normally costs hundreds of dollars. Volunteers even go to the children’s homes to pick them up if necessary. O’Ree and his staff never turn a kid away, even if they don’t have the financial means to participate.
When asked if he felt if kids think hockey is cool or not, O’Ree replied, “They sure think it’s cool once they get out on the ice. The kids don’t always realize how fun hockey can be. The hardest part is getting them out there, but as soon as we do, they absolutely love it.”
As Director of Youth Development, Willie O’Ree has helped the NHL Diversity program expose more than 40,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds to unique hockey experiences. Over the past decade, O’Ree has traveled thousands of miles across North America helping to establish 39 local grassroots hockey programs, all geared towards serving economically disadvantaged youth. Click here to learn more about the NHL Diversity program.