Type to search

  • Willie O’Ree earns his rightful place atop the rafters

    Tim Rosenthal January 18, 2022

    The trailblazing Willie O’Ree finally has his place atop the TD Garden rafters.

    It wasn’t a long time coming from just an on-ice perspective for hockey’s version of Jackie Robinson. His success went beyond donning the spoked ‘B’, helping provide minorities inclusivity in the sport after appearing in his first NHL game 64 years ago Tuesday.

    The omicron breakout amid the COVID-19 pandemic prevented O’Ree from attending his retirement ceremony in person. The sold-out crowd on Causeway St. did hear from O’Ree — a recent recipient of the congressional gold medal — via Zoom as Bruins alum Anson Carter and representatives from SCORE Boston raised O’Ree’s No. 22 before Boston’s tilt with the Carolina Hurricanes.

    “I think it’s a great honor for Willie — retired jersey, congressional medal of honor and everything that goes along with it,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said on O’Ree becoming the 12th Bruin to have his number retired by the organization. “Can’t say enough good things about Willie. It’s unfortunate with COVID times that he’s not able to be here in person. It’s always a great opportunity to chat and catch up. Good for Willie. Trailblazer to say the least. I’m very happy for him and his family.”

    The Bruins couldn’t have the interaction with the legendary O’Ree in person. But the COVID situation only altered how they came together to showcase their appreciation.

    Amid their hottest stretch of the 2021-22 season, captain Patrice Bergeron the Bruins set up shop at the video room inside Warrior Ice Arena for their Zoom conversation with O’Ree following Monday’s practice.

    After Bergeron spoke, Brad Marchand confirmed the news regarding the City of Boston declaring Jan. 18, 2022, Willie O’Ree Day. David Pastrnak then revealed a gift to O’Ree: a fedora cap featuring feathers and a banner to commemorate the achievement.

    Every Bruin appreciated the opportunity to congratulate O’Ree, the NHL’s diversity ambassador for another historic milestone. And Tuesday marked another accolade of O’Ree’s accomplishments over the last few years that included enshrinement into the Hockey Hall of Fame and a return of his game-worn jersey from his playing days.

    Defenseman Matt Grzelcyk and his father, John, presented O’Ree with his sweater when the Bruins celebrated the 60th anniversary of O’Ree breaking the NHL’s color barrier. It marked the first time the younger Grzelcyk ever met the legendary O’Ree in person in a moment he indeed never forgot.

    “The first time I ever met him was when I gave him the jersey that we had,” Grzelcyk recalled. “I don’t know the whole backstory, but I think my dad got the jersey from an old equipment trainer. We never knew he actually didn’t get a jersey from the Bruins when he got traded. That was a pretty cool moment that I got to share with my dad as well. Something I definitely don’t take for granted.”

    Obviously, the Bruins would’ve wanted O’Ree in person donning his No. 22. Perhaps he’ll return once more to see his number in its rightful place between Terry O’Reilly and Rick Middleton.

    “To have my number retired and hanging up there in the rafters with so many other great hockey players that have played for the Bruins, it’s amazing,” the 86-year-old O’Ree said.

    To think that an eye injury two years prior to his arrival in Boston could’ve derailed O’Ree’s career. But O’Ree realized his dream and faced racial adversity head-on with humility and grace.

    The Bruins welcomed O’Ree with open arms upon debuting at the old Montreal Forum. And indeed, his legacy is forever a part of Bruins and NHL lore.

    “I will never forget how my teammates in the Bruins’ locker room accepted me as one of their own,” O’Ree said in his virtual address to the fans. “I am overwhelmed and thrilled to be a part of the Bruins forever.”

    Facebook Comments
    Tim Rosenthal

    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.


    You Might also Like

    Leave a Comment