Recognition often delayed, but always deserved for Willie O'Ree

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Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier on Jan. 18, 1958. He played his final NHL game in 1961 and retired from hockey all together in 1979 at the age of 43 after nearly two decades playing in Southern California, first in the Western Hockey League and then the Pacific Hockey League.

It wasn’t until 1991 that the NHL made any effort to recognize his historic feat. O’Ree had pretty much disappeared from the hockey world by then, working in construction, security, at a car dealership, or managing a fast-food restaurant.

“I got a call 30 years later in 1991,” O’Ree recalled Tuesday after the Bruins announced they were retiring his number 22. “I left the league in ‘61. In 1991, I got a call from the NHL inviting me to the All-Star game in Chicago. And when I picked up the phone and answered, I said, ‘Well, why are you inviting me? I haven’t played in 30 years.’ He said, ‘Well, we realize that you broke the color barrier and we’d like to invite you to the All-Star game.’ So, my wife and I went, had a great time. That was 30 years after I left the league. Sometimes things take a little longer.”

O’Ree had always wanted to find a way back to the NHL after his playing days, whether it was coaching, scouting or working for the league, but never really got the chance. As he put it, “A door would open, a door would close.”

He finally got an opportunity in 1996 when Bryant McBride, then the NHL’s vice president for business development, reached out to O’Ree, then working at a hotel in Coronado, California, about possibly getting involved in the league’s new diversity program.

“I looked the program over and it was involving kids, traveling and working, doing on- and off-ice clinics,” O’Ree said. “Speaking in schools, juvenile detention facilities, boys and girls’ clubs, YMCAs and YWCAs, any place there were kids that I thought would be able to maybe take on hockey. So, I started and all of a sudden, things just started to move. I’ve been working with the NHL for 23 years now.”

O’Ree, now 85, has been the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador since 1998, working to introduce the game to communities and children who likely wouldn’t learn about or play hockey otherwise. It is in that role that he has arguably done even more for the sport than he did by breaking the color barrier.

“What I wanted to do and what I wanted to try to do is expose as many boys and girls as possible and give them the opportunity to play the sport,” he said. “There are many clinics that I’ve attended just to let these boys and girls know that there is a sport that they can play. If they come and they don’t like it, they can just walk away from it. It’s not going to cost them anything. But I can honestly say, the number of clinics I’ve conducted over the years, and once I get these boys and girls on the ice, I’ve not had one boy or girl come up to me and say, ‘Oh Mr. O’Ree, I don’t like this, I’m not coming back.’ I’ve got a good record going.”

As O’Ree’s work grew, so too did recognition of who he was and what he had done. In 2008, the Bruins and the NHL honored him before a game at TD Garden for the 50th anniversary of his first NHL game. That same year, The Sports Museum honored him with a special exhibit, his hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick named a new sports complex after him, and he was awarded the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor.

Ten years later, on the 60th anniversary, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder for his contributions to the game and the city of Boston dedicated a street hockey rink named in his honor. 2019 brought a documentary about his life and 2020 a special Canadian silver coin with his face on it.

The latest honor came Tuesday, when the Bruins announced they would be retiring his No. 22 this February, something he said he never would have imagined in the years following his playing career.

“I was sitting in my backyard [Monday] afternoon,” O’Ree said, “and Cam Neely from the Bruins called and I said, ‘Hi Cam, how are you?’ He said, ‘Fine, I just have something special to tell you.’ And he said, ‘The Bruins are going to retire your number.’ And I said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I was at a loss for words there for a few seconds. I’m overwhelmed and thrilled about having my Bruins jersey hung up in the rafters.”

Like so many of the honors that have come O’Ree’s way in recent years, it’s overdue. His achievements on and off the ice have been deserving of such recognition for a long time. But it’s better late than never.

As O’Ree said himself, “Sometimes things take a little longer.”