BOSTON — You may not know the name Willie O’Ree, but he was the first Black player in the NHL.
O’Ree will finally get his place of honor next month when the Boston Bruins retire his jersey.
O’Ree played for the Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, when he took to the ice as the first Black player in the league. He played for the team for two years but retired from professional hockey in 1979, The Associated Press reported.
His No. 22 jersey will be displayed in the rafters at TD Garden Arena when the Bruins face off against the New Jersey Devils, CNN reported.
“Willie’s contributions to the game of hockey transcend on-ice accomplishments and have opened countless doors for players who have come after him,” Bruins President Cam Neely said. “He is without question deserving of this honor.”
O’Ree found out from Neely himself.
“I was at a loss for words there for a few seconds,” he told the AP. “I’m overwhelmed and thrilled about having my Bruins jersey hung up in the rafters.”
O’Ree is legally blind in one eye, but that did not stop him from playing.
“I was obsessed with playing the sport,” O’Ree told the AP. “Just that burning desire. Even when I lost my eye my second year of juniors, they said, ‘Well, you should just quit.’ I said, ‘Well, I can still see.’ I just kept on playing.”
O’Ree is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, inducted in 2018, and was honored when the NHL started the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award that recognizes an individual working to positively impact their community, culture or society through hockey, CNN reported.
Not only will the Bruins honor O’Ree’s accomplishments, so will the entire league, as the NHL announced that the teams will wear a decal on their helmets with O’Ree’s image and the message “celebrating equality,” CNN reported.
The decals will be worn from Jan. 16 through the end of February’s Black History Month.
The NHL starts its 2020-21 season Wednesday evening with the Pittsburgh Penguins taking on the Philadelphia Flyers. The season was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.