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The NHL’s first black player, Willie O’Ree, had a short but pathbreaking stint with the Boston Bruin

Willie Eldon O'Ree CM ONB (born October 15, 1935) is a Canadian former

professional ice hockey player, best known for being the first black player in the National Hockey League (NHL). O'Ree played as a winger for the Boston Bruins. O'Ree is referred to as the "Jackie Robinson of ice hockey" for breaking the black colour barrier in the National Hockey League, and has stated publicly that he had met Jackie Robinson when he was younger. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 2018.

Also in 2018, the NHL instituted the annual Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award in his honour, to "recognize the individual who has worked to make a positive impact on his community, culture or society to make people better through hockey."25-year-old left wing Willie O’Ree, the first black player of the National Hockey League, warms up in his Boston Bruins uniform, prior to the game with the New York Rangers, at New York’s Madison Square Garden, on November 23, 1960.

After O'Ree's stint in the NHL, there were no other black players in the NHL until another Canadian player, Mike Marson, was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974. There were 23 black players in the NHL as of the mid-2010s. Art Dorrington was the first black player to sign an NHL contract, in 1950 with the New York Rangers organization, but never played beyond the minor league level. NHL players are now required to enroll in a preseason diversity training seminar, and racially based verbal abuse is punished through suspensions and fines.

From 1998 on, O’Ree has been the NHL's Diversity Ambassador, traveling across North America to schools and hockey programs to promote messages of inclusion, dedication, and confidence.

O'Ree was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984. In 1998, O'Ree was working at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, California when the National Hockey League approached him to be the director of youth development for its diversity task force.The NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force is a non-profit program for minority youth that encourages them to learn and play hockey. As of the mid-2000s, O'Ree lives in Berkeley, California. O'Ree and Kevin Weekes appeared in the Everybody Hates Chris episode "Everybody Hates Gretzky" in 2008.

On the afternoon of January 19, 2008, the Bruins and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly honoured O'Ree at TD Garden in Boston to mark the 50th anniversary of his NHL debut. In addition, The Sports Museum of New England located in the TD Garden, established a special exhibit on O'Ree's career, comprising many items on loan from his personal collection. Those in attendance included a busload of friends from O'Ree's hometown of Fredericton. Two days earlier, the City of Fredericton honoured him by naming a new sports complex on the North side after him. Around the time of the 60th anniversary of O'Ree's contribution to ice hockey in early 2008, he was once again honoured by the Bruins and the NHL, with a new street hockey rink in Boston named in his honour, one of many accolades with which the Bruins and NHL legend are involved. On January 27, 2008, the NHL also honoured O'Ree during the 56th National Hockey League All-Star Game in Atlanta, Georgia. On February 5, 2008, ESPN did a special on him in honour of Black History Month.

On October 29, 2008, San Diego State University presented O'Ree with an Award for Outstanding Commitment to Diversity and Cross Cultural Understanding.[21] In 2008, O'Ree was also inducted by the San Diego Hall of Champions into the Breitbard Hall of Fame honouring San Diego's finest athletes both on and off the playing surface.

The same year, O'Ree received the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award for a Canadian citizen. He was honoured as a pioneer of hockey and dedicated youth mentor in Canada along with the U.S. On June 28, 2011, The Sports Museum at TD Garden in Boston honoured O'Ree with the Hockey Legacy Award at the 10th Annual "The Tradition." Other honourees that evening included Larry Bird, Mike Lowell, and Ty Law. The Buffalo Sabres hosted a Willie O'Ree skills weekend in March 2012. His jersey was retired by the San Diego Gulls on October 16, 2015.

As the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals were about to start, the San Jose Sharks' Barbadian Canadian star right winger Joel Ward was preparing to play against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and told ESPN that O'Ree was one of his inspirations to play pro hockey, and should have his player number 22 retired by the NHL league-wide, just as Jackie Robinson, the first player of color in Major League Baseball has been honored. Ward himself honored Robinson's legacy through his last season in NHL play by wearing jersey number 42 in NHL play; Robinson's own player number 42 has been retired league-wide in pro baseball. On November 3, 2017, O'Ree was honoured with a banner by the Springfield Thunderbirds during a pregame ceremony to commemorate his time with the Springfield Indians.


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