In a move that has been a long time coming, the Hockey Hall of Fame announced on Tuesday that Willie O’Ree will be inducted as part of the Class of 2018.
O’Ree made his NHL debut as the first black player in the league on January 18, 1958, for the Boston Bruins. He paved the way and inspired other black hockey players following in his footsteps in the league. In April, the Philadelphia Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds penned an emotional essay in the Player’s Tribune on what that journey looked like, with particular reverence for what O’Ree had achieved before him.
“Without Willie, there would be no Jarome Iginla,” he wrote. “There would be no Grant Fuhr, or PK Subban or Ray Emery or Dustin Byfuglien or so many others who have had the honor of playing in this great league. There would definitely be no Wayne Simmonds.”
Not only did O’Ree join the league at a time where racial segregation was still in practice across America, but he was also legally blind in one eye. A true pioneer of the sport, his influence and desire to make the sport accessible to more black players did not end when he retired.
As the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador and Director of Youth Development, O’Ree helped establish 39 local grassroots hockey programs, opening doors for players who would otherwise miss out on the opportunity to play the sport.
— Devante Smith-Pelly (@smithpelly23) January 18, 2018
Capitals defenseman Madison Bowey spoke highly of Willie O’Ree and his influence on his game, during the 60th Anniversary of O’Ree’s debut in the NHL in January.
“He’s a big reason why I’m playing hockey today and why other [black players] have a chance to play in the NHL,” Bowey said. It goes a long way what he does. We’re definitely proud of him and what he did is pretty huge. He’s why I wear 22 because he was the first [black] player to play in the NHL, so he has a lot of history for me and it’s definitely a big deal in my life. My dad kind of educated me on him a bit growing up. His story is pretty special and it’s something I always think of, too. It’s special for all of us. We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him.”
At the 2018 NHL Awards, the Willie O’Ree Community Hero award was debuted, with the aim of recognizing an individual who – through the game of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture, or society. The inaugural award was presented to the Humboldt Broncos late head coach, Darcy Haugan.
The full press release from the NHL follows below.
The Hockey Hall of Fame announced today that Willie O’Ree, the first black player ever to play in the National Hockey League, was elected to be inducted as a member of the Class of 2018.
O’Ree, who made his NHL debut on Jan.18, 1958, playing for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens in the Montreal Forum, is a trailblazer who paved the way for the players of diverse ethnic backgrounds who have succeeded him in the subsequent 60 years. In his roles as NHL Diversity Ambassador and Director of Youth Development over the last 20 years, O’Ree has helped establish 39 local grassroots hockey programs and inspired countless young people to play the game in its many forms.
O’Ree will enter the Hall in the Builders category. He will be inducted Nov. 12, 2018, along with Players Martin Brodeur, Jayna Hefford, Martin St. Louis and Alexander Yakushev and fellow Builder, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
The announcement of the Class of 2018 was made by Hockey Hall of Fame Chairman Lanny McDonald following today’s meeting of the Hall’s Selection Committee.
“There are a select few about whom it truly can be said: ‘He changed the game.’ Willie O’Ree is among that select few,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “He did it by stepping onto the ice of the Montreal Forum in a Boston Bruins sweater on Jan. 18, 1958. He has done it just about every day since, inspiring generations of NHL players who followed the path he blazed and working tirelessly to encourage and enable countless boys and girls, who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity, to participate in our game and learn the many life lessons it teaches. We are truly delighted at Willie’s well-earned selection.”
“Sometimes, goals, assists, points or shutouts measure a person’s place in the game,” Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky said. “But desire, determination, work ethic and the drive not to let obstacles get in his way? That is why Willie has earned his induction into the Hall.”
“Willie paved the path for the rest of us. In that way he is a true builder of the game,” said Hockey Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr. “If you look up the word ‘builder’ there should be a picture of Willie. He is the Jackie Robinson of hockey.”
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