Willie O’Ree won’t be standing on TD Garden ice on Jan. 18, pulling on the rope that raises his No. 22 to the rafters.
Concern over the pandemic, and the long travel, will force O’Ree, 86, to remain home in San Diego. The ceremony was originally scheduled for last January.
But the moment is nearly here. He will be watching via video stream as his number rises to its permanent place among the greatest Bruins, 64 years to the day he became the first Black player in the NHL. He will be one of a dozen Bruins so honored in nearly a century of the team’s existence.
“He’s in great health,” said Bryant McBride, a longtime friend. “He’s excited. He’s humbled and he’s overwhelmed by the whole thing. He was only at the top level for a little bit, but he found a way to add to the game in a way people couldn’t ignore.”
O’Ree has steadily pulled on that rope since earning a spot in an Original Six lineup on Jan. 18, 1958, at the Montreal Forum. Since 1998, he has been the NHL’s director of youth development and diversity ambassador, traveling around North America to share his story and help establish grassroots programs. Generations of players know him as hockey’s Jackie Robinson.
Before the ceremony, O’Ree, elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 2018, will be given a lifetime achievement award by the Carnegie Initiative. That nonprofit group, established last year to promote growth and diversity in the sport, will hold a two-day summit at Hub Hall at TD Garden. Those scheduled to participate include author and Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi; Penguins president of hockey operations Brian Burke; Hall of Famer players Grant Fuhr and Angela Ruggiero; and Sheldon Kennedy, the former Bruin who leads Respect Group, now working with the NHL to prevent abuse and harassment.
The primary topic: “How can we, with intent and purpose, make this sport more open and welcoming?” McBride said. “Everybody loves the sport. It can flourish by being intentionally inclusive.”
McBride, of Lexington, was the NHL’s first Black executive. When McBride was hired in 1993, new commissioner Gary Bettman had him start a diversity task force. Part of his duty was finding O’Ree, whose last pro game was in 1979, long after his brief NHL career (45 games with the Bruins in 1958 and 1960-61). McBride found O’Ree in San Diego, working as a security guard.
After some persuading, O’Ree let McBride into his home. In his office, an ornate plaque hung next to two smaller, simpler ones. O’Ree found meaning in all three honors: the Order of Canada, awarded to him in 2008; and the pair of “employee of the month” nods for the Hotel del Coronado.
“What it said to me: All work is important,” McBride said.
No matter the level.
Reggie Millette, a freshman at American International College, learned about O’Ree from a hockey card of someone else. During Millette’s days as a mite in Fort Wayne, Ind., he was teammates with the son of former Bruin Fred Knipscheer. The teammate’s grandfather handed him Knipscheer’s hockey card as a keepsake.
Adopting a new favorite team, Millette started searching online. He learned that the first NHLer who looked like him wore the Spoked-B.
“I know he’s a great character. He did a lot of good for the sport, and still is,” Millette said. “I definitely looked up to him.”
From O’Ree’s story, Millette said, “I learned it takes hard work to get to where you want. There’s going to be a lot of obstacles. You’ve got to go over, around it, under it. There’s always a way.”
Millette is not an NHL prospect. His coach at USHL Dubuque, Oliver David, described the 5-foot-11-inch, 183-pound forward on the “U-School” podcast as “an average skater, an average puck handler, an average shooter, an average hockey player at the Tier 1 level.”
But Millette is “extraordinary,” David said, as a person.
During a troubled childhood in Jacksonville, Fla., Millette moved from house to house. His mother was in a halfway home. Millette spent nights sleeping in a car. He and his sister moved to Indiana to live with his grandmother. His sister got into figure skating, and after trying numerous sports, he discovered hockey.
“At the beginning, it was really hard for my grandmother to pay the bill for ice,” Millette said. “We used to [collect aluminum] cans. I wrote a couple letters to get grants. Once I started playing, getting on a team and playing travel — the ice bill’s going to be a lot more, but people supported me like no other.”
An anonymous donor paid for a full year of Millette’s travel hockey. When his grandmother began driving two-plus hours each way to Plymouth, Mich., for Victory Honda AAA practices, Millette’s coach, Rick Scero, and his wife, Chris, became his legal guardians. That paved the way for a USHL stint, and earned the hit-first, hustle-always winger a Division 1 scholarship.
Millette, 21, is adjusting to school life again after being out of the classroom for a few years. After rehabbing a torn AC joint in his shoulder, he has played in one game. Eventually, he wants to give back in a more meaningful way. Right now, he’s not limiting himself.
“Being a role player and coming to work every day, working my hardest,” he said. “It’s tough to get in the lineup because our team is really good. I’m honored to be on it.”
Rodrigues riding high for Penguins
The power this season, at least so far, resides in the East.
Entering the weekend, Tampa Bay and Florida were battling for the Atlantic and the top of the overall league standings. Washington, the Rangers, and Carolina are right behind, 3-4-5 in points. Toronto was seventh.
And don’t sleep on Pittsburgh, which had won 10 in a row and was still fourth in the Metropolitan, ninth in the league.
Sidney Crosby is on one of his runs (22 points in his last 14 games). Fellow 34-year-old Kris Letang (26 assists in 29 games) isn’t slowing down, either. No one between Jan. 1 and Friday had more goals than Bryan Rust (seven). Tristan Jarry (.933 save percentage) has forgotten his dismal 2021 postseason. The Penguins’ penalty kill is No. 1 in the league (90.2 percent as of Friday).
Oh, and Evgeni Malkin (June knee surgery) is expected back soon.
The Penguins also have arguably the top breakout player in the league, and we’re not talking about Danton Heinen (on track for a career-high 22 goals). Evan Rodrigues, the ex-Boston University Terrier, has become a force at age 28.
He has played nearly every forward spot, including first-line center in Crosby and Malkin’s absence. Rodrigues scored his first hat trick last Sunday against San Jose, one of the goals coming by picking the right time to fly the zone, collecting an outlet, and using a sharp cut to the slot to snipe through traffic. On Wednesday against St. Louis, he was on Pittsburgh’s top power-play unit, and thundered home a knee-down one-timer. The next night in Philadelphia, he made Carter Hart look silly with a cutback finish on the breakaway.
All this from a would-be journeyman who, amid a string of short-money, short-term contracts, wondered “if he was going to get another shot in the NHL,” said David Quinn, his coach at BU.
Rodrigues spent five years with Buffalo, which signed him off Comm. Ave. At the 2020 deadline, the Sabres traded him to Pittsburgh, which flipped him to Toronto that summer. His hometown (Etobicoke, Ontario) Maple Leafs walked away from his RFA deal, letting the Penguins re-sign him for $700,000.
Rodrigues, extended for one year and $1 million last summer, has busted his previous ceiling — nine goals and 29 points with Buffalo in 2018-19 — in just 33 games. His 15-15–30 line is second on the Penguins and had him T-37 in NHL scoring, entering the weekend.
Rodrigues scored seven goals and seven assists last season. He has put up exactly that in his last nine games.
It’s reminiscent of his college years, when he exploded as a senior. Rodrigues, who had point totals of 12, 34, and 14 in his first three seasons, got on the NHL’s radar with a 61-point year.
“I knew he was a top-line guy,” Quinn said. “It was just, you’re putting a team together, and I wanted to have Cason Hohmann and Evan Rodrigues together, and Danny O’Regan and Jack Eichel together, and go from there. We moved Ahti Oksanen to forward and I put him on the left wing with Eichel. He had four goals in the first 23 minutes he played with him, so we left him there.”
The offense stagnant in midseason, Quinn tried Eichel, Rodrigues, and O’Regan on a line. Boom. They finished with 71, 61, and 50 points, respectively, in 41 games (Eichel missed one).
“His hockey sense, his IQ, his swagger — you put him on the first or second line, he’s not intimidated by playing with Sidney Crosby,” Quinn said. “And he can skate. He may not be a blazer, but he’s fast enough.”
Quinn: Team is taking shape
David Quinn, the coach of the US Olympic men’s team, is working the phones to find players.
“We’ve had to change course in a hurry, not that we weren’t prepared for it,” said Quinn. “It’s working the phones and trying to put the best team available. Players are coming from all different sides of the hockey world. Lot of conversations, lot of Zooms.”
Quinn has been logging hours on InStat, the video scouting service, to familiarize himself with college players he doesn’t know. He is not going on the road because of COVID-19.
Expect Team USA to finalize its roster this coming week, with some college stars in the mix.
“I feel really good about the way this thing is coming together,” Quinn said. “Talking to people involved [in 2018], they thought that maybe there should have been a few more college guys involved. I don’t care where they come from, but last time around, Troy Terry, Ryan Donato, and Jordan Greenway were three of the best players. Plus, we’re playing on a North American rink.”
That makes it seem like Matty Beniers (Hingham), the No. 2 overall pick by Seattle in 2021, will be on the team.
“We’ll have some college guys people are going to want to watch,” Quinn said. “There will be reasons to watch, for sure.”
Lofty, and worthwhile, goal
Boston Pride forward Sammy Davis spoke for all pro women’s players.
“I would give anything,” she said in 2020, “to wake up and train and skate and have it be my job.”
Making that so has become Alex Sinatra’s latest mission, and it is a lofty one.
The new director of the Premier Hockey Federation Players Association will try to build on what former head Anya Packer helped secure for the seven-year-old league: a 50-50 revenue split with ownership and increase in team salary caps (to $300,000). Packer, of Waltham High and BU, has since April been GM of the Metropolitan Riveters.
Sinatra was a gymnast, not a hockey player, but she brings legal experience Packer didn’t have (she is a member of the Texas bar). The PHFPA is not a formal union. Contracts are year to year, and top earners make $25,000.
From her initial conversations with players, Sinatra said they want contracts that “more clearly lay out the value that they bring, more marketing opportunities, and a more hands-on role in the direction of the league.”
Sinatra also said she reached out to the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association’s Jayna Hefford, who consults for those Olympic-level players who say they are holding out for a more viable league.
The PHF has been chugging along. Its games are shown on ESPN+, and this past week Warrior, the hockey division of Brighton-based New Balance, agreed to provide gear for players and goalies the next two seasons.
Piling up the numbers
The spillover effects of the pandemic are soaking teams such as the ECHL’s Worcester Railers, whose roster feeds the AHL affiliates of the NHL’s Blues (Springfield) and Islanders (Bridgeport). COVID-19 has caused Worcester to use 53 players this season, with an additional three skaters and six goalies who didn’t see action. Twenty part-time Railers have appeared in just a single game.
One of them, Marlborough’s Bobby Butler, shook off the cobwebs at age 34. Butler, whose decade as a pro ended with AHL Hartford in 2019, suited up and recorded a goal and two assists last Sunday.
That morning, the volunteer assistant at Holy Cross was at the rink watching his 6-year-old son play. After the Railers, who had given him a heads-up a few days before, confirmed he was in, he went home, showered, put on a suit, and returned to the rink.
“I think I was very smart with my shift length,” said Butler, who had hung up the skates after multiple wrist surgeries. “Day after, my groins were a little shot . . . I think it kick-started me into getting me in shape.”
Since Jan. 1, 2021, only Connor McDavid (158) and Leon Draisaitl (137) have more points than Florida’s sneaky MVP candidate Jonathan Huberdeau (105). Auston Matthews (100) is the only other one in triple digits . . . There are three teams that can’t consistently get a save from their starting netminder: Seattle (Philipp Grubauer), New Jersey (Mackenzie Blackwood), and Edmonton (Mikko Koskinen). Those keepers rank 1-2-3 in the league in goals saved below average among full-timers (per Natural Stat Trick). It’s astounding that Vegas is first in the West with Robin Lehner (fourth) right behind them. If Lehner can find his game, and Jack Eichel is Jack Eichel when he returns, watch out . . . Arizona beat Chicago, 6-4, on Thursday for its first multi-goal win of the season. The Coyotes, who needed an empty-netter to get there, have outscored opponents, 25-17, in their seven wins. They have been walloped,107-45, in their 22 losses. The most memorable play from that game: Chicago’s Dylan Strome flipping the puck up to himself and batting it across the crease for Alex DeBrincat, who slapped it home. Love the creativity on display this season . . . Minnesota’s Matt Boldy, proud son of Millis, had the winning goal at Boston on Thursday. He is the third NHL player ever to make his debut in his home state or province and score the winner. The others: Brock Boeser (Vancouver at Minnesota, 2017) and Dave Poulin (Philadelphia at Toronto, 1983) . . . Unfortunately for the Atlantic Division, Nikita Kucherov is back . . . Colorado entered the weekend with four players on 100-point paces over 82 games: Nathan MacKinnon (135), Nazem Kadri (127), Gabriel Landeskog (108), and Mikko Rantanen (107), and Norris Trophy leading contender Cale Makar was on track for 88. Is the Dead Puck Era over? . . . Makar’s ankle-breaking spin move goal in OT against Chicago last Tuesday was great, but not Goal of the Year. McDavid went 1 on 4 against the Rangers with the game on the line . . . The Zoom Era stinks. Can’t wait until it’s over. We do get the occasional human moment on the video calls, such as when candid Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy was accidentally muted to start one. “They’re afraid of what you’re going to say,” a reporter cracked. Cassidy: “So am I, some days.”
Matt Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyports.