While it’s been a hockey season undoubtedly impacted by COVID once again this year for the Boston Bruins, the B’s organization will give Bruins fans something to feel good about in a couple of weeks. Hockey Hall of Famer and NHL trailblazer Willie O’Ree will have his No. 22 retired with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18 during a Bruins/Carolina Hurricanes game at TD Garden
O’Ree is the 12th player to have his sweater honored by the Boston Bruins in their Original Six franchise history, joining Lionel Hitchman (#3, 1934), Aubrey V. Clapper (#5, 1947), Edward W. Shore (#2, 1949), Milton C. Schmidt (#15, 1957), Robert G. Orr (#4, 1979), John P. Bucyk (#9, 1980), Philip A. Esposito (#7, 1987), Raymond J. Bourque (#77, 2001), Terence J. O’Reilly (#24, 2002), Cameron M. Neely (#8, 2004) and Richard D. Middleton (#16, 2018).
The honor arrives for O’Ree some 64 years to the day from the Boston Bruins forward becoming the first black player to break through the NHL’s color barrier for the Black and Gold against the Montreal Canadiens.
“It’s wonderful, really. I’ve met those gentleman and Bobby [Orr] has attended my Will O’Ree hockey skills tournament and weekends. I’m, as I’ve mentioned, I’m just thrilled and honored to be a part of the Bruins organization. I was a Montreal Canadiens fan in my teens because Toronto and Montreal were the only two teams in the NHL, but when I went to my first Bruins training camp in 1957, I became a Bruins fan,” said O’Ree. “In ‘58 I went again. I had the highest respect and highest admiration for the entire Bruin organization, especially the guys that I played with during that time.
“I’d probably say, just Willie O’Ree, a young black kid that set goals for himself and stayed focused on what he wanted to do. Believe in himself and wanted to play not only professional hockey, but hopefully one day play in the National Hockey League. I said that I would strive to be all that I could be. And I could probably just leave it at that.”
Despite being legally blind in one eye, O’Ree went on to play one more game that season for the Boston Bruins and 43 games during the 1960-61 season before being traded to the Canadiens. O’Ree ended his NHL career with four goals and 10 assists and went on to be named the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, where he traveled the country to grow the game of hockey and embody the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiatives.
O’Ree was rightfully inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 in the “Builder” category after devoting so much of his life to the game of hockey. The ceremony honoring O’Ree at TD Garden will begin at 630 pm with doors opening at the Garden at 5 pm for the special ceremony honoring the special individual, and one out of the proudest moments in Boston Bruins history.
In an example of great synergy, the Carnegie Initiative Inaugural Summit is scheduled for Jan. 17-18 at The Hub on Causeway, a part of the newly redeveloped North Station/TD Garden area. The two-day forum will focus on change and awareness in hockey concluding with O’Ree’s number retirement ceremony prior to puck drop for the Bruins/Hurricanes game.
O’Ree will speak at the summit and will received a lifetime achievement award for all that he’s done to promote diversity and inclusion over six plus decades in hockey. The O’Ree retirement ceremony had been scheduled for February last season in a game against the New Jersey Devils but was postponed until this season to make certain that the important event could be witnessed by a full house of Boston Bruins fans at TD Garden.
“I’ve been working with the NHL for 23 years now. As you mentioned, so many things have happened after I retired. So many good things. There are two rinks in my name, one just outside of Boston and the Will O’Ree place in my hometown,” said O’Ree. “I’ve had a book out, a documentary. The Canadian Mint produced a 20-dollar silver coin with my likeness on one side and the Queen’s on the other. And then, being inducted into the Hall of Fame and then Canada, being inducted there. There are just so many wonderful things that have happened to me after I retired.”
Last season, a group of NHL players wore Willie O’Ree commemorative skates and talked about O’Ree’s influence to an entire generation of black players that look at the Bruins legend as the one that kicked down the door for them.
Look at these wheels💧💧💧💧🔥🔥🔥🔥. The group will be working with NHL Auctions to sell the skates with ALL funds going to Black Girls Hockey Club. Another example of people helping people!! ✊🏻✊🏼✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿#DontHateHelp#BHM#Willie#LetsGrow pic.twitter.com/WUEUFBCaRC
— Anson Carter (@AnsonCarterLA) February 17, 2021
“I think of Willie O’Ree like an astronaut,” said Toronto Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds. “He was a trailblazer as a player and off the ice his role as an ambassador continues to welcome new players and families to our game. It’s been an honor for me to participate in creating this skate, and I can’t wait to wear it on the ice.”
At some point, perhaps, the NHL will follow through on a much-deserved honor with the Boston Bruins and direct all 32 teams to retire the No. 22 to honor a true pioneer and hero in the courageous, affable O’Ree.