A long-overdue honor is set to finally be bestowed this season, as the Bruins announced that they will retire Willie O’Ree’s No. 22 jersey prior to the team's game against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, February 18.
O’Ree became the first black player to compete in an NHL game on January 18, 1958 — playing for the Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens despite being legally blind in one eye. Sixty years after breaking the color barrier in the NHL, O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2018 as part of the “Builder” category — which is defined by “coaching, managerial or executive ability, or ability in another significant off-ice role, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general.”
O’Ree is the 12th player to have his sweater honored by the Boston Bruins in franchise history — joining the likes of Lionel Hitchman (#3, 1934), Aubrey “Dit” Clapper (#5, 1947), Eddie Shore (#2, 1949), Milt Schmidt (#15, 1957), Bobby Orr (#4, 1979), Johnny Bucyk (#9, 1980), Phil Esposito (#7, 1987), Ray Bourque (#77, 2001), Terry O'Reilly (#24, 2002), Cam Neely (#8, 2004) and Rick Middleton (#16, 2018).
"It’s wonderful, really," O'Ree said. "I’ve met those gentleman and Bobby has attended my Will O’Ree hockey skills tournament and weekends. I’m, as I’ve mentioned, I’m just thrilled and honored to be a part of the Bruins organization. I was a Montreal Canadiens fan in my teens because Toronto and Montreal were the only two teams in the NHL, 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. "
O'Ree played in 45 games for the Boston Bruins, scoring 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in his NHL career, and played professional hockey for 21 seasons. O'Ree was hired by the NHL and Bryant McBride, then the NHL vice president for business development, in 1998 with the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force, now known as Hockey Is For Everyone, for which he is the League's diversity ambassador.
"I broke the color barrier in 1958 and there are so many – not only black players, but players of color now that are in the league," O'Ree said of the growth of hockey over the years. "These players are there because they have the skills and ability to be there. They’re not there just because they’re black players or they’re players of color. They have proven that they can play and the NHL is the league that they are playing in. There have been a lot of changes. There are more kids playing hockey today than ever before. There are more girls playing hockey today. The exposure is out there. What I wanted to do and what I wanted to try to do is expose as many boys and girls as possible and give them the opportunity to play the sport. There are many clinics that I’ve attended just to let these boys and girls know that there is a sport that they can play.
"If they come and they don’t like it, they can just walk away from it. It’s not going to cost them anything. But I can honestly say, the the number of clinics I’ve conducted over the years, and once I get these boys and girls on the ice, I’ve not had one boy or girl come up to me and say, “Oh Mr. Ree, I don’t like this, I’m not coming back”. I’ve got a good record going. It just takes sometimes the word of mouth. And then again, these boys and girls have a lot of role models that they look up to. That’s a big thing, to have these players come out and just talk to these boys and girls for maybe five minutes or just to come out and have a picture taken. That means a lot to them.
Given the current COVID-19 restrictions in place, the Bruins acknowledged that O'Ree's ceremony in February might take place without fans at TD Garden. The club released added: "Despite this regrettable circumstance, the organization believes that it is important to move forward with a virtual pre-game ceremony and bestow this honor on Willie. Once protocols allow, the Bruins will again honor Willie in front of a full TD Garden."