It was never going to be an ideal Boston Bruns ceremony for the retirement of Willie O’Ree’s No. 22 jersey with the 86-year-old Hall of Famer unable to make to TD Garden in person due to the ongoing COVID pandemic. But the B’s still put on a first class show of appreciation and love for the trailblazing O’Ree on the 56th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier by playing in an NHL game for the Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens.
Absolutely the highlight of this night. Great ceremony for Willie O’Ree by the Boston Bruins prior to puck drop pic.twitter.com/ib25wrFdlp
— Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) January 19, 2022
O’Ree watched via Zoom from his California home with his wife Deljeet and daughter Chandra, and former Boston Bruins forward Anson Carter raised the No. 22 banner in Boston via a packed TD Garden house celebrating the courageous O’Ree. The honors were many from the city of Boston making Jan. 18 Willie O’Ree Day to the US House of Representatives awarding O’Ree with the US Congressional Gold Medal, to another former No. 22 for the Boston Bruins making sure he was in the house to honor O’Ree as well.
Tonight Willie O’Ree joined a legendary group of players who have had an enormous impact on our game. I was proud to also wear that #22 for the @NHLBruins and it’s amazing to see it here in the rafters in his honor along with my friend and colleague Brett Peterson. [1/2] pic.twitter.com/6Qia2X1IcJ
— Shawn Thornton FDN (@ThorntonFDN) January 19, 2022
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was also in the house at TD Garden as well to see his friend O’Ree honored after decades working for the league as a Diversity Ambassador.
“More than 8,200 players have suited up for at least one game in the National Hockey League’s 105-year history,” said Bettman. “Willie O’Ree is among the select few who made a unique, transformative and enduring contribution to the NHL.
“Merely by stepping onto the ice at the Montreal Forum in a Boston Bruins sweater 64 years ago, Willie truly changed our game. He has spent every day since not only living his life as a role model to be emulated and admired but working tirelessly to personally connect with and inspire thousands of children with his life story and life lessons our sport imparts.”
It was surely a bit overwhelming for O’Ree after the Boston Bruins bestowed a number of gifts on the Hall of Famer on Monday, including a custom-made Boston Bruins fedora from none other than B’s hat enthusiast David Pastrnak.
“You’ve inspired so many…on and off the ice…we’re so happy and proud for you.”
On Monday, our team gathered to congratulate Willie O’Ree and present him with a few surprises in honor of his No. 22 heading to the TD Garden rafters.#NHLBruins | #Willie22 pic.twitter.com/qALW0Dtwjz
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) January 18, 2022
But as with everything in his life, O’Ree approached the retirement ceremony with grace, humility and exactly the kind of thoughtful approach that gave him the tools he would need to break through the NHL color barrier back in 1958.
“This is just a memorable evening not just for myself, but for my family,” O’Ree said following the ceremony. “To have my number retired and hanging up in the rafters with so many other great hockey players that have played for the Bruins, it’s just amazing.
“I will never forget how my teammates in the Bruins locker room accepted me as one of their own. This was a time when some of the fans and opposing players were not ready to see a Black man in the NHL. [My older brother Richard] used to say, ‘Willie, focus on your goals you set for yourself, work hard and stay positive. This is what I tried to do as a member of the Bruins every time I put on the jersey.”
O’Ree has done that and then some while inspiring generations of black hockey players to come after him, including longtime NHLers like Joel Ward and Wayne Simmonds.
Tonight my idol Willie O’Ree’s number 22 will be hung from the rafters (Finally). I can’t stress how much Mr O’Ree has meant to me and millions of other BIPOC kids who love the game of hockey… Congratulations MR O’Ree
— Wayne Simmonds (@Simmonds17) January 18, 2022
That’s the true O’Ree legacy as the NHL embraces diversity and a “Hockey is For Everyone” credo that he lived long before it was truly embraced by the entire hockey world.