clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Deep Blue Sea: Bruins honor Willy O’Ree with jersey retirement

The special ceremony came the day after the observation of MLK Day.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL, talks to kids playing in a diversity tourney at the Ulin Rink. O’Ree 82, is in town to be honored by the NHL and the Bruins, who are celebrating the 60th anniversary of him entering the league. January 13, 2018 Photo by Chris Christo/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

History was made yesterday, 64 years in the making, on the day that Willie O’Ree, the first Black player in the NHL, skated in an 1958 NHL game for the Boston Bruins. Michelle Wu, the mayor of the city of Boston called it, “Willie O’Ree Day,” a fitting follow-up to Monday’s observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The league and the Bruins organization honored O’Ree by retiring his jersey, No. 22, ahead of Tuesday night’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes. It was a momentous occasion for the 2018 Hall of Fame inductee and his family — daughter, Chandra, and wife, Deljeet — who joined the ceremony via video conference due to COVID-19 concerns.

It was a marvel for the hockey world, as the NHL has pushed to promote diversity in the game with its Hockey Is For Everyone campaign, an effort which is shared by O’Ree in his career and through his pioneering achievement.

O’Ree, who was 22 years old when he joined the league, played 45 games over his NHL career, scoring 14 points (4 goals, 10 assists) across two seasons for the Bruins. He would eventually continue his hockey career in the Western Hockey League — at that time, a competitor to the NHL — where he earned 639 points (328 goals, 311 assists) in 785 WHL games.

Going into his debut season with the Bruins, he played legally blind in one eye — a resulting injury from a flying puck that hit him in his right eye while playing junior hockey. He later testified that he kept the detail a secret when he joined the team, a necessary risk for achieving his dream of playing in the NHL.

Being one of the few people of color to play the game at that point, and the only Black player at the time, he was frequently targeted for prejudice by both opposing players and fans — an experience that is unfortunately familiar to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) at all levels of hockey. Willie, now 86, however, was never deterred.

Through all his challenges, he found a way to give back to the game he loved by becoming the ambassador of the NHL’s Hockey Diversity Task Force in 1998. In that capacity, he has grown the game by helping to establish 39 grassroots hockey programs across North America, opening up the sport to over 130,000 boys and girls.

“I look forward to supporting the next generation of young hockey players,” O’Ree said in his speech, “During my last visit to Boston, one of the highlights was seeing these young boys and girls from ‘Hockey Is For Everyone’ skating on the ice at TD Garden. Looking up at the icons and legends hanging from the rafters, I never imagined my jersey would join them.”

First Black Player in National Hockey League

Among those names at TD Garden in Boston are Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Ray Borque. “This is an unforgettable day,” O’Ree said, “I am overwhelmed and thrilled to be a part of the Bruins forever. Thank you.” Despite his fascination with the elevation of his own name to these legendary ranks, O’Ree is a legend in his own right.

Being an inspiration to players both past and present, many joined in and paid tribute to O’Ree:

News & Notes

Blood in the Water

  • ‘We will never let his name die’: How NHL players have been inspired by Willie O’Ree [ESPN]
  • The NHL’s first black player, Willie O’Ree, had a short but pathbreaking stint with the Boston Bruins [The Undefeated]
  • Rangers’ breakout season about to face string of challenges [New York Post]
  • Canucks rekindle confidence, momentum to close out eastern gauntlet [Sportsnet]
  • Islanders’ Zdeno Chara beats Flyers’ Zack MacEwen in fight, then asks if he’s fine [USA Today]
  • REACTION: Avalanche will need another goaltender [Mile High Hockey]
  • Capitals Must Find 2021 Scoring Touch to Break Slump [The Hockey Writers]
  • A Very Early Look at the 2022 New Jersey Devils Pending Free Agents [All About the Jersey]
  • Jake Muzzin diagnosed with a concussion [Pension Plan Puppets]
  • PHF announces $25 million investment [The Hockey News]

Scores & Recaps

Click on a team name to find a recap on their SB Nation site!

On the Schedule