At long last, the Bruins will be retiring Willie O'Ree's No. 22. The team announced Tuesday that it will do so prior to their game against the Devils on Feb. 18.
O’Ree became the first black player to play in an NHL game on Jan. 18, 1958, when he dressed for the Bruins in a game against the Canadiens. He played two games before being sent down to the minors, but returned to the Bruins to play 43 games in 1960-61, registering four goals and 10 assists that season.
Since 1998, O’Ree, now 85, has been the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, traveling around North America to schools and hockey programs to promote inclusion and the league’s Hockey Is For Everyone initiatives.
In 2018, O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the “builder” category, which is defined by "coaching, managerial or executive ability, or ability in another significant off-ice role, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general."
"On behalf of the Boston Bruins organization I would like to congratulate Willie O'Ree as well as his wife, Deljeet, and his daughter, Chandra, on having his number retired in the TD Garden rafters," said Bruins president Cam Neely in a statement. "Willie's contributions to the game of hockey transcend on-ice accomplishments and have opened countless doors for players who have come after him. He is without question deserving of this honor."
"Throughout the history of the National Hockey League, there have been very few individuals that have had such a profound impact on the league and its culture than Willie O'Ree," said Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs. "After breaking the color barrier as a Boston Bruin in 1958 and eventually retiring from professional hockey in 1979, Willie became the ultimate ambassador for improving diversity and inclusion within the game of hockey. The entire hockey world is forever indebted to Willie for all that he has done, and continues to do, for the sport. We are incredibly proud to retire Willie's number and cement his legacy as one of Boston's greatest athletes."
Despite the unfortunate likelihood that there will be no fans in attendance for the ceremony, the Bruins say they believe “that it is important to move forward with a virtual pre-game ceremony and bestow this honor on Willie.” They add that they will honor O’Ree again in front of a full TD Garden once they’re able to do so.
O'Ree is the 12th player to have his number retired by the Bruins, joining Lionel Hitchman (#3, 1934), Dit Clapper (#5, 1947), Eddie Shore (#2, 1949), Milt Schmidt (#15, 1957), Bobby Orr (#4, 1979), John Bucyk (#9, 1980), Phil Esposito (#7, 1987), Ray Bourque (#77, 2001), Terry O'Reilly (#24, 2002), Cam Neely (#8, 2004) and Rick Middleton (#16, 2018).