Willie O’Ree honored on historic 60th anniversary
He is the Jackie Robinson of the National Hockey League.
“I came here in 1957 for my first training camp,” Willie O’Ree said Wednesday afternoon. “Johnny Bucyk took me under his wing. I fell in love with the city and just had a great time.”
A 23-year-old O’Ree, playing for the Quebec Aces, got a call from the Bruins to be in Montreal for his first NHL game. On January 18, 1958, he became the first black player in NHL history. While O’Ree’s NHL career included only 43 games, his mark on NHL history is indelibly etched.
On the eve of O’Ree’s historic accomplishment, team and NHL brass assembled at TD Garden a few hours before, ironically, a faceoff against the Canadiens to announce the dedication of a new street hockey rink in Allston-Brighton in honor of O’Ree.
Along with the 82-year-young O’Ree, Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman were on hand Wednesday to dedicate the new rink, along with children from the Score Boston program.
Jan. 18 marks the 60th anniversary of O’Ree’s historic game. He went on to play professional hockey from 1955-1979. O’Ree serves as a Diversity Ambassador for the NHL — a position he’s held since 1998 — spreading the message that hockey is for everyone, especially in urban areas.
O’Ree was in attendance at Monday’s annual Martin Luther King Breakfast at the Convention Center, and participated in various community events leading up to the official celebration of the anniversary, which takes place during the Bruins-Canadiens game Wednesday night before a national audience.
“Now going into my 20th year working with the Diversity Program,” O’Ree said, “I felt that I wanted to give back not only to the sport but to the community what hockey had given me over the years.”
The rink will officially open to the general public this summer. It is located within Smith Playground (235 Western Avenue Allston-Brighton), which is undergoing a major renovation that includes improvement to the amphitheater, community space, ball fields and playgrounds.
The new street hockey rink will be named Willie O’Ree Rink, recognizing O’Ree’s impact on the game, both on and off the ice. The NHL has made a $100,000 contribution to assist in its completion.
“Everyone knows Jackie Robinson and Barack Obama,” Walsh said. “And people in Boston know Willie O’Ree. But his story really needs to be told around the country. He’s more than an ambassador to the [NHL]. He’s lived it.”