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KEVIN CULLEN

The endless grace of Willie O’Ree

Willie O’Ree became the first Black player in the NHL when he laced up for the Boston Bruins 63 years ago. He remains an ambassador not just for the game, but for the human race.

Left wing Willie O'Ree, 25, the first Black player in the National Hockey League, warmed up in his Boston Bruins uniform prior to a game against the New York Rangers. The Bruins plan to retire O’Ree's jersey.
Left wing Willie O'Ree, 25, the first Black player in the National Hockey League, warmed up in his Boston Bruins uniform prior to a game against the New York Rangers. The Bruins plan to retire O’Ree's jersey.Associated Press/File 1960

Last week, as the nation struggled with a pandemic that is killing its people and an act of sedition that is trying its soul, the Bruins announced they will retire Willie O’Ree’s No. 22 jersey.

The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday fell on Monday, Jan. 18, this year, which happened to be the 63rd anniversary of the day Willie O’Ree became the first Black man to play in the National Hockey League.

While the Red Sox will forever wear the shame of being the last team in Major League Baseball to field a Black player, the Bruins will always be the Brooklyn Dodgers of hockey, the first NHL team to put a Black player on the ice, and that player was Willie O’Ree.

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In 2018, Willie O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, the same year a street hockey rink in Allston was dedicated in his name, the same year he took a phone call at his home in San Diego from a guy named Jim Mulvaney.

Mulvaney is a New Yorker who became an intrepid foreign correspondent for Newsday and a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor. He’s also a hockey nut. He grew up a Rangers fan, for which I will never forgive him. He played his college hockey at the University of New England in Maine, breaking his nose (7) more often than he scored (4).

But once a hockey guy, always a hockey guy. Mulvaney and his wife raised their two boys in Long Beach on Long Island, which is middle-class and hockey-obsessed. Think Hingham with funny accents.

Mulvaney’s son Danny is autistic. Danny can’t talk, but he can skate, because his dad taught him. Mulvaney coaches the Long Island Blues, a hockey team for young adults with developmental disabilities.

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A few years ago, Mulvaney said, an Orthodox Jewish woman asked if her son, who is legally blind, could play, so they put together a team for visually impaired kids. They made a puck out of metal, stuck pebbles inside it to make it rattle, and the kids use their ears the way other hockey players use their eyes.

The team was looking to get off the ground and Jim Mulvaney immediately thought of Willie O’Ree.

A decade earlier, Long Beach had given O’Ree the key to the city. Leaders of the local Black community and hockey community stood shoulder to shoulder, listening to Willie O’Ree talk of breaking barriers and scoring goals.

After the speech, Mulvaney got talking to Rod Gilbert, the Rangers great, about how tough Willie was, growing up in New Brunswick, in one of only two black families in Fredericton. Gilbert called Willie over and Willie explained that as the youngest of 13 siblings, digging a puck out of a corner was easy compared to competing for food at home.

More than a decade later, on a transcontinental phone call, Willie O’Ree remembered all that and Mulvaney had not even finished his pitch about helping a newly formed team of visually impaired kids before Willie said he’d be on the next flight.

Willie O’Ree showed up in Long Beach with bags of equipment and a lifetime of perspective.

They assembled the players in a room and Willie O’Ree told them a story. Two years before the Bruins called him up, when he was playing in the minors, Willie took an errant puck to his right eye, blinding him. He swore the team doctor to secrecy and kept playing, kept digging.

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“I can only see out of one eye,” Willie O’Ree told a bunch of kids who cannot see, “but I always saw myself as an NHL star. I never got to be a star, but I got to play in the NHL.”

Willie O’Ree is 85 now. Those kids in Long Beach, like the kids who play street hockey on the rink in Allston named for him, will never glide through life as smoothly as he once skated. But they will live forever in the comforting shadow of his endless grace.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.