Some 60 years after taking his last shift as a Boston winger, Willie O’Ree next month will hoist his No. 22 to the Garden rafters, making him only the 12th Bruins player in nearly a century to have his number retired to hallowed heights.
O’Ree, 85, was home in San Diego on Monday when Bruins president Cam Neely called him with the unexpected news.
“And I said, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ ” noted O’Ree, who spoke with the media Tuesday in a late-afternoon Zoom session. “I was at a loss for words there for a few seconds. I’m overwhelmed and thrilled.”
Born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, the ebullient O’Ree had a very brief NHL playing career, a total of 45 games (and only 14 points) across two seasons (1957-58 and 1960-61) with the Black and Gold. A goodwill ambassador for the league for the better part of the last quarter-century, he was the first player of African heritage to play in the NHL when he suited up for the Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, for a weekend home-and-away series vs. the Canadiens.
A speedy and tenacious right winger, O’Ree played in 43 of the Bruins’ 70 games in 1960-61, then was traded to Montreal in the offseason. In part due to severely limited vision related to an eye injury in junior hockey, he never made it back to the NHL, but went on to play 15 more seasons in the minors before finally retiring at age 43 following the 1978-79 season with the San Diego Hawks.
“I was a Montreal Canadiens fan in my teens because Toronto and Montreal were the only two [Canadian] teams in the NHL,” recalled O’Ree. “But when I went to my first Bruins training camp in 1957, I became a Bruins fan. In ’58, I went again. I had the highest respect and highest admiration for the entire Bruin organization, especially the guys that I played with during that time.”
Only two other players of African-Canadian heritage, Grant Fuhr (Edmonton) and Jarome Iginla (Calgary), have had their numbers retired. The NHL has yet to have an African-American born player achieve the honor, although O’Ree has been a tireless advocate of getting more players of color into the game. In November 2018, those efforts were rewarded when O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto as a builder.
Forever resplendent in suitjacket and stylish fedora, O’Ree will be honored by the Bruins at the Garden on Feb. 18 prior to faceoff vs. the Devils. Regrettably, the fete will be held in an all-but empty Garden, due to the restrictions on crowd size related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Ideally, you want him shaking people’s hands in situations like this, and people really paying tribute — and rightfully so — to Willie,” noted GM Don Sweeney, who was born five years after O’Ree played here. “Hopefully [the empty building] doesn’t diminish the overall effect of Willie’s number going into the rafters … and what he’s meant to the game and the Boston Bruins. I really don’t want to downplay that in any regards to the pandemic.”
O’Ree worked sundry non-hockey jobs for approximately 15 years after retiring as a player, and was employed in a security role at San Diego’s iconic Hotel Del Coronado in the mid-’90s when, at the urging of new NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, he was contacted by league vice president Bryant McBride about working for the league.
“I wouldn’t say he was reluctant or skeptical,” said McBride, a fellow African-Canadian who lives in Lexington. “Maybe cautious is the right word. It was out of the blue, right? He hadn’t been in hockey for years, and here I am, this guy from New York knocking on his door about maybe working in the NHL. A lot to process there.”
It was that connection that ultimately led O’Ree to become the league’s No. 1 advocate of getting minority kids across the US and Canada to try the game. Because of McBride’s outreach, the League’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative forever will have O’Ree’s name attached.
After playing that last game with the Bruins in the spring of 1961, O’Ree increasingly became but a footnote in NHL history. He recalled Tuesday that he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it when the league called to invite him to the 1991 All-Star Game in Chicago.
“Well, why are you inviting me? I haven’t played in 30 years,” O’Ree recalled telling the NHL rep who called him with the invite. “He said, ‘Well, we realize that you broke the color barrier and we’d like to invite you to the All-Star Game.’ So, my wife and I went, had a great time.”
Sometimes, as O’Ree put it, things take a little longer.
“He’s been such a great ambassador for the sport for years. And what he probably had to endure, one can only imagine,” Neely said on a Tuesday webinar with the winners of the Bruins MIAA Sportsmanship Award. “I don’t think he tells all the stories of what he had to endure to make his way to the NHL. Quite frankly, [the honor] is probably a little overdue.”