Willie O’Ree is kind of a big deal.
As the first Black player to appear in an NHL game, the now 86-year-old broke the league’s color barrier on Jan. 18, 1958, when the Boston Bruins faced off against the Montreal Canadiens. And while he would only play 45 games in the NHL, all of which were with the Bruins over the course of two seasons, his courage and tenacity left an indelible mark on the sport that continues to reverberate throughout the league today.
“I remember being 6 or 7 years old, and I told my parents, ‘I want to play hockey.’ And they said before I could, I had to look up Willie O’Ree,” Wayne Simmonds, a winger for the Toronto Maple Leafs, told ESPN recently. “They wanted me to know why I was getting this opportunity to even be able to play the game. I did a lot of studying about Willie growing up, and ever since that, Willie has been my idol. Without him, not only Black children, but other BIPOC kids as well, probably wouldn’t have had their opportunities. Every ethnicity has its trailblazer; it’s first. Willie was the first.”
On Tuesday night, ESPN reports that “the Jackie Robinson of ice hockey” finally received his long overdue flowers when his No. 22 was retired by the Bruins. During the beautiful ceremony fit for a king, O’Ree expressed his gratitude virtually from his home in San Diego due to “the long travel and associated risks that come along with a cross-country trip.”
“To the Bruins fans, I am honored to have had the pleasure of playing before you. Thank you for your tremendous love and support,” he said. “This is an unforgettable day. I am overwhelmed and thrilled to be a part of the Bruins, forever.”
ESPN provided additional details of how Bruins players honored O’Ree on Tuesday night:
Bruins players took the ice for warm-ups in special edition jerseys with commemorative Willie O’Ree patches on them—his No. 22 inside their logo, with his two NHL seasons listed underneath. The players also wore No. 22 in warm-ups. Inside their dressing room, their lockers had commemorative nameplates with the patch and a photo of O’Ree. The TD Garden ice had No. 22 decals installed behind both nets, where they will remain for the next three home games in Boston.
The celebration didn’t just take place inside the packed TD Garden, either. The Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park, the New England Patriot’s Gillette Stadium, and the city of Boston’s City Hall were all lit up in his honor, and other arenas throughout the NHL paid tribute to the trailblazing legend on their jumbotrons.
Additionally, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu made things officially official and declared Jan. 18 Willie O’Dree Day.
“I think it’s a great honor for Willie,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. “He’s a trailblazer, to say the least. I’m very happy for him and his family.”
I couldn’t agree more.