Willie O’Ree, the first black player to play in the NHL is being retired by his team. This comes after a strong push from hockey fans and players who have taken to social media with their support of changing Willie’s #7 jersey number back to its original form – #18.
Editor’s note: Two Black NHL teammates reflect on Willie O’Ree’s enduring effect as the No. 22 jersey rises to the rafters in Boston on Tuesday, Jan. 18.
There are a few accolades in this game that distinguish the memorable from the unforgettable.
There’s the Stanley Cup, which is the pinnacle of a team’s achievement.
There’s the Hockey Hall of Fame, which is the pinnacle of a hockey career.
There are also jersey retirements, which are the ultimate acknowledgement of a player’s importance to a club, a fan base, and a community both on and off the ice.
Having your jersey retired is, in our view, the greatest honor a player can get. Your jersey and every NHL home game your club will ever play build an everlasting relationship. And it’ll be an honor for Willie O’Ree when his jersey is elevated to the rafters in TD Garden next week.
The NHL’s first Black player being recognized in this fashion gives the hockey community an opportunity to reflect on all that comes with being “the first,” from the challenges Willie faced to the optimism he instilled in so many individuals who had never seen themselves represented on the game’s largest platform.
We should begin with the difficulties. Because it’s important to recall how massive they were.
You’ve only heard half of the tale if you’ve heard Willie speak about how he handled the racist insults he heard on the ice — how he didn’t let it affect him, how he “just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that reality, that was their issue, not mine.” He’s referring to his remarkable fortitude, which allowed him to keep going.
But consider what this resilience really meant for a second.
It meant years of hearing people say he was unwanted and unpleasant around and around rinks. It required utilizing their ignorance to resist preconceptions while also attempting not to burn out from annoyance at the existence of prejudices. And it meant juggling social stress and pressure on top of the everyday training, attention, and dedication required of elite athletes. Willie’s quest was made more difficult by his considerable weight than that of white players as they all worked toward their goal of playing in the NHL.
Willie, on the other hand, persisted.
We’ll never know what it was like for Willie to live in a time when open racism was the norm. But, even if same pressures today act in more indirect ways, we may relate some of our experiences to the same forces that Willie had to contend with.
• Bell: O’Ree’s brief but pivotal time with the Bruins • Walker: The players and events that led to O’Ree’s arrival on the scene • Yates: O’Ree breached the color barrier, but she still has a long way to go.
Willie lacked the necessary evidence. All he had was his own determination and mental toughness to keep going, even though he had no idea when or if his goal of playing in the NHL would come true.
He never faltered in his resolve. That’s why he was prepared for the Boston Bruins’ historic call-up.
It’s worth thinking about how Willie’s NHL debut was received by the crowd. Imagine him playing in the Bruins sweater in front of an almost all-white audience. They grew up at a period when it was common to hear that Black people couldn’t play competitive hockey because their ankles were “too weak.” But Willie O’Ree was right there on NHL ice, battling against the best in the old Montreal Forum. People in the audience must have had to rethink their preconceptions because of his appearance. Silently and gradually, it had to cause a shift in their attitudes of race and society.
Willie was undoubtedly aware of it, but we’re guessing he wasn’t paying attention. He most likely simply wanted to do his best for the Bruins and help them win. And that’s part of what makes his effect so appealing. He wasn’t playing hockey to persuade others to alter their minds. He just wanted to be himself and play the sport he enjoyed to the best of his abilities. Meanwhile, by holding his own on the ice, he earned a bit more respect for everyone who looks like him.
When we speak about Willie’s 45 games in the NHL, the hockey world needs to convey this narrative.
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So, here’s the deal: the actual measure of Willie’s legacy isn’t the amount of NHL games he played, but the door he opened for every diverse player that came after him. In our perspective, he could have just played one game and left a big legacy.
Willie’s legacy also includes the 130,000 children he has touched via the Hockey is for Everyone initiatives he helped launch in the 1990s. The initiatives provide underserved children in North America access to hockey while also teaching them life qualities such as confidence, collaboration, and leadership. To accommodate all the varied boys and girls who have benefitted from Willie’s community activities, the average NHL arena would have to be filled seven times.
Few individuals choose to give back in such a significant manner. Willie’s trip, on the other hand, is littered with uncommon decisions that altered the game’s outcome. Willie’s decision to not give up was perhaps the most crucial. At the same time, Willie required hockey leaders who were prepared to question the game’s definition of “normal.” The Bruins took a risk in 1958 by giving Willie an opportunity to play despite the possibility of racial retribution. The company should be commended for taking the risk.
Willie is now among the most illustrious names in franchise history, having grabbed his opportunity and utilized it to benefit his club, the sport, and our society.
O’Ree’s legacy includes his substantial involvement in initiatives that teach hockey to youngsters who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to participate. Getty Images/Chris Christo/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald
In the last 64 years, the globe has evolved dramatically. Still, it’s evident that more has to be done to address the root reasons of Willie’s narrative. There are more diverse kids in hockey that need our assistance in order to feel encouraged and empowered. Racial inequalities continue to exist in society, affecting Black people and other people of color. As the hockey world commemorates Willie’s retirement, we should remember how important these concerns are, how far previous generations have come, and how everyone of us can contribute to the progress by committing to being a force for good.
Willie’s narrative will always be greater than hockey when you think about it like that.
But, of course, hockey is what makes his narrative so personal to us.
We realize how glad we are to be here together every now and then when we’re both on the ice, whether we’re playing, training, or running a penalty kill. We get to play at the greatest level in a sport we like, and we get to share the experience with other men who have faced similar obstacles on their route to the league. As two Black NHL players, we’ve had the opportunity to have some incredible moments.
And we only know about those recollections because Willie allowed us to follow in his footsteps.
There are players and supporters on every club and in every city who are glad that Willie worn the Bruins jersey for their own reasons. When No. 22 joins the ranks of other legends in the rafters at TD Garden, they’ll all be filled with pride.
It’s an accolade that honors Willie’s pioneering achievements while also sending a message that will last a lifetime: Against all odds, Willie O’Ree had an incredible impact on his team and the whole National Hockey League. And we’re all the better for it.
The Tampa Bay Lightning’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Mathieu Joseph are teammates. Joseph is in his fourth NHL season, while Bellemare is in his ninth.