Willie O’Ree is as deceived by the passing of time as the rest of us.
The 82-year-old, who holds a proud place in hockey history as the first black man to play in the NHL, was recently honoured in Boston, where the Bruins marked the 60-year anniversary of the seminal moment.
“I couldn’t believe it was 60 years,” O’Ree told Yahoo Canada Sports at a Hockey 4 Youth event in Toronto. “I remember my 50th anniversary but when they said 60, I was trying to figure out where did those 10 years go by.”
However, O’Ree, who has served as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador for more than two decades, remains as sharp as his dress-sense and is eloquent in sharing his passion for inspiring and educating young boys and girls through hockey. This week, the league announced the inaugural Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award to acknowledge those who are making similar contributions to ‘improving lives and strengthening communities through hockey.’
“I believe in our youth and in the power of the game of hockey to unlock the on- and off-ice potential of boys and girls around the world,” said O’Ree, who made his NHL debut for the Bruins on January 18, 1958 in Montreal, despite being blind in one eye throughout his career.
Asked what he would tell his 22-year-old self the night before he made history, O’Ree doesn’t hesitate to be straightforward.
“I’d tell him the first thing is to be yourself, go out and play the game you know how to play and work hard,” said O’Ree, who is wearing a lapel pin the NHL issued for the 60th anniversary. “Represent yourself and represent the hockey club to the best of your ability.”
It’s understandable that O’Ree keeps his introspection to few words and doesn’t dwell in nostalgia. The Fredericton native explains how he was exposed to racial slurs from fans and opposition players for much of his career but, thanks to his brother, whom he describes as a mentor, the abuse never bothered him.
“He says names will never hurt you, unless you let them,” said O’Ree shortly after giving a speech to about 50 kids from three local schools before they took the ice for an end-of-season tournament. “My main concern was going out and trying to be the best hockey player I could be.
“It took a while, I finally gained the respect of not only the players on the ice but the fans in the stands.”
It’s taken the best part of half a century, but O’Ree may now finally receive the highest mark of respect a hockey player can hope for — induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Following the anniversary ceremonies in Montreal, a groundswell of support from New Brunswick and a letter from Karl Subban (father of P.K., Malcolm and Jordan) lead to a citizen submission being made to the 2018 selection committee.
“I’d be thrilled,” said a blushing O’Ree, clearly a little uncomfortable with the attention. “I mean, what could you say about being in the Hall of Fame as a builder but you know, when I started with the (Hockey is for Everyone) program, I was intent to do the best job I could do.”
O’Ree will find out in June if his name will enter the hallowed halls but for now, his thoughts lead him to appreciation for his body of work with kids.
“I get letters, phone calls, emails, texts from boys and girls that I met seven, eight years ago and they say ‘Mr O’Ree, I just want to thank you for coming to our school and talking about believing in yourself.’
“Sometimes it just chokes me up.”
Before wrapping the interview and quickly workshopping an Instagram boomerang with a man in his element on the ice rather than on his phone, O’Ree has one final nugget of wisdom.
“My dad said, ‘Willie, find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ and there’s a lot of truth to that.”