When he hung up the skates in 1979, Willie O’Ree never imagined to see his number in the TD Garden rafters with fellow greats like Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Milt Schmidt (to name an esteemed few).
After all, several Bruins wore No. 22 after O’Ree’s retirement, including Shawn Thornton.
But O’Ree’s trailblazing stature drew respect all across the National Hockey League. Bruins President Cam Neely echoed that sentiment in a phone call with O’Ree when he revealed that his No. 22 will take its rightful place in the TD Garden rafters before the Bruins-Devils tilt on Feb. 18.
“I was sitting in my backyard [Monday] afternoon and Cam Neely from the Bruins called and I said, “Hi Cam how are you, 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'” an appreciative O’Ree gushed during Tuesday’s Zoom call with reporters. “I was at a loss for words there for a few seconds, and I said, “I’m overwhelmed and thrilled about having my Bruins jersey hung up in the rafters.”
Unfortunately, the Feb. 18 ceremony will likely take place inside an empty TD Garden. Like everything else in today’s society, the COVID-19 pandemic altered the usual pomp and circumstance surrounding a legend’s banner ceremony.
“Ideally, you want him shaking people’s hands in situations like this and really paying tribute and rightfully so to Willie. Hopefully, it doesn’t diminish the overall effect of Willie going into the rafters and retiring his number and what he’s meant to the game and the Boston Bruins,” GM Don Sweeney said.
“I really don’t want to downplay that in regards to the pandemic that is ongoing. As an organization, the legacy of the Boston Bruins, I think that we need to pay tribute in the best fashion we possibly can in these times and thank Willie overall for his contributions to our organization, but really to the entire National Hockey League.”
Regardless, this was long overdue.
O’Ree, the youngest of 13 children, made his NHL debut on Jan. 18, 1958, in Montreal. The league hired O’Ree in as a Diversity Ambassador exactly four decades later, primarily focusing on their Hockey is for Everyone campaign.
Yes, there’s still a long way to go for the NHL to become a fully diverse league. Their tepid response following a tumultuous summer of racial turmoil proves that.
For every other racist coach or player — both past and present — there’s the likes of Grant Fuhr, Jarome Iginla, Anson Carter and Mike Greer having long and successful careers.
O’Ree, a 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, paved the way for all of that.
“I broke the color barrier in 1958 and there are so many — not only black players, but players of color now that are in the league. These players are there because they have the skills and ability to be there,” O’Ree said. “They’re not there just because they’re black players or they’re players of color. They have proven that they can play and the NHL is the league that they are playing in…The exposure is out there.”
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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