Very few people in NHL history have made the kind of impact that Boston Bruins legend Willie O'Ree has on and off the ice and for so many generations of players.
By breaking the league's color barrier in 1958 when the Bruins called him up from the minor leagues to play against the rival Montreal Canadiens, O'Ree helped pave the way for many people of color to live out their dream of becoming a professional hockey player.
"I remember being 6 or 7 years old, and I told my parents, 'I want to play hockey.' And they said before I could, I had to look up Willie O'Ree," Wayne Simmonds, a Toronto Maple Leafs forward, told ESPN's Kristen Shilton for a story published in January.
"They wanted me to know why I was getting this opportunity to even be able to play the game. I did a lot of studying about Willie growing up, and ever since that, Willie has been my idol. Without him, not only Black children, but other BIPOC kids as well, probably wouldn't have had their opportunities. Every ethnicity has its trailblazer; it's first. Willie was the first."
O'Ree finally had his number No. 22 retired to the rafters at TD Garden on Jan. 18 -- the 64th anniversary of his historic debut -- in a special ceremony before the Bruins played the Carolina Hurricanes.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, O'Ree was not able to attend the ceremony but participated virtually.
One person in attendance to help raise O'Ree's No. 22 to the rafters alongside the other Bruins icons was Anson Carter. Carter played 10 seasons in the NHL, including four with the Bruins. Like so many players of color before and after him, Carter drew plenty of inspiration from O'Ree's strength and character.
"When I played, I dealt with so many conscious and unconscious biases," Carter said in a phone interview with NBC Sports Boston. "It would have been very easy to get discouraged and to stop playing and say, 'screw this, what am I doing this for?' But I would always look at Willie, and have conversations with Willie, and think about how much worse it was back when he played when he broke the color barrier in 1958.
"When I played in 1996-97, coming into the league, things were better but we still had our challenges. That's what I would do, I would always look toward Willie and think about the conversations that we would have and he would tell me the stories of when he would have to eat at different restaurants and can't use the same restrooms as his teammates. Hockey is the ultimate team sport, and to not be able to eat with your teammates or use the same restroom they're using, it can really play on you and affect you. I just used him as a beacon of inspiration. He was able to battle through it and grind through it. So I said, if Willie was able to do that, so can I."
O'Ree's speech was amazing. It highlighted, among many things, his difficult road to the NHL and the challenges people of color had to go through at that time.
“I will never forget how my teammates in the Bruins locker room accepted me as one of their own,” O'Ree said. “This was a time when some of the fans and opposing players were not ready to see a Black man in the NHL.
Education at the grassroots level
Perhaps O'Ree's most profound impact has come in the years after he retired from hockey in 1979. He has done so much work with kids across North America, not only teaching them the game of hockey, but important lessons that they will take with them throughout their entire lives.
"That's where you're going to make the biggest impact," Carter said of O'Ree's work at the grassroots level. "The players in the NHL -- it's like an iceberg or pyramid. That's the elite of the elite. But most kids who are playing this game probably aren't going to play in the NHL. But to go in and interact with them 1-on-1, teach them life lessons and show them what the sport can do for you in terms of life lessons, winning and losing, being a good teammate, learning how to share.
"I think the biggest thing that you learn, and one that Willie's passed along to kids, is when you're playing hockey you have to learn how to skate. I don't know anyone who's learned how to skate without falling down. There are going to be several times in your life when you run into obstacles and you're going to fall down, but you have to get back up again if you plan on going from Point A to Point B. I think Willie has been really instrumental in conveying that message, and these grassroots programs that are popping up that the league has been funding, the last couple years in particular, reviving the Hockey is For Everyone program, in addition to the other programs. I think that's the biggest way we can impact the youth going forward."
The population of players of color continues to grow, and that is a direct result of the courage O'Ree displayed 64 years ago and his work in communities all over the country. Just two years ago, the Los Angeles Kings selected center Quinton Byfield with the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. Byfield is the highest drafted Black player in NHL history and scored his first career goal last week.
Gradual change on and off the ice
In 2020, amid the protests and calls for social and racial justice, the NHL and its players made a strong effort to make the game more inclusive for people from all backgrounds through various programs and initiatives.
Carter has seen the sport take a lot of positive steps nearly two years after that movement began.
"I think the league has even more energy than they did back then (in 2020)," Carter explained. "The league is pumping out, investing $5 million over the next 18 months into growing these programs. I think about the courage it took for Ryan Reaves and Kevin Shattenkirk to be very instrumental and having the players sit out and miss games during that time (in 2020). And those guys are big players and big voices in our Player Inclusion Committee, which I'm the co-chair along with P.K. Subban. I look at how our game has grown with Blake Bolden, on our Player Inclusion Committee, working for the L.A. Kings. Meghan Duggan getting hired by the New Jersey Devils. Al Montoya getting hired by the Dallas Stars. Jamal Mayers getting hired by the St. Louis Blues. Brigette Lacquette getting hired by the Chicago Blackhawks (as the first Indigenous woman to scout for an NHL team). Brett Peterson, a Black assistant general manager for the Florida Panthers. Also seeing someone like Emily Castonguay getting hired recently as the first female AGM of the Vancouver Canucks.
"I am very happy with the direction the game is going in. It might not be changing fast enough, but if you look at our network (Turner Sports), we have myself on the desk, Tarik El-Bashir who contributes, you've got Dave Gibson our producer, our stage manager Carrie Snow. So you're seeing a lot of people of color involved in the production of the game, too, behind the camera. So when people say hockey hasn't changed and isn't growing, they're not looking hard enough. On the other side of the border in Canada, I see the same thing. You've got Harnarayan Singh, you've got Dave Amber, Jennifer Botterill who works with us and Sportsnet. Cassie Campbell, Anthony Stewart, Jamal Mayers who works for Sportsnet as well.
"I'm seeing a lot of positive steps within our game. And I think the reason why a lot of people point towards hockey not really growing as fast as they hoped it would grow, is because it's systemic. It's deep and been ingrained in our game for years, and it doesn't just change overnight. I think we have enough people and enough wind in our sails that people want to put in the work and do a lot of good things, that we're seeing some gradual change in our sport."
The work is far from over
O'Ree and many others have made tremendous progress in helping the sport be more inclusive, accessible and safer, but plenty of work remains. Last month's racist incidents in the AHL and ECHL were a painful reminder.
San Jose Barracuda forward Krystof Hrabik was suspended 30 games by the AHL for using an alleged racial gesture toward Tucson Roadrunners forward Boko Imama. Jacksonville Icemen forward Jacob Panetta was suspended 38 games by the ECHL and released by his team for an alleged racial gesture toward South Carolina Stingrays defenseman Jordan Subban.
Carter is pleased with how both leagues have handled the incidents.
"I'm very satisfied, and I have to commend the leadership of Scott Howson, president of the AHL, and I'm also very satisfied with the leadership of commissioner Ryan Crelin of the ECHL," Carter said. "You think about what happened in the AHL -- 30 games is a long time. A long time. But also, it's not a death sentence. We're going to give the player a chance to claw back some games, if he's willing to have conversations with our Player Inclusion Committee, and also if he's willing to put in the work and effort and go through learning experiences. If he does that, he's able to, at best, sit out 21 games. He's able to claw back some games and earn that privilege of playing professional hockey again.
"What makes that even more encouraging for me, from the standpoint of our culture changing, Boko Imama didn't even see him make that gesture, it was the players on the ice who saw it. So now you've got players policing themselves, which is a huge step. Before, guys put their heads in the sand and said, 'I didn't see it. I didn't hear anything,' and try to keep it moving, it's not a big deal. Now guys are calling each other out, and white players are, which is a tremendous step in the right direction.
"If you look at what happened in the ECHL, that player ended up getting 38 games -- the remainder of the season -- and this player's punishment is a little more steep than the AHL player's punishment because it was a couple days afterward. So either you weren't paying attention to what's happening in the hockey world, or you didn't care. That had to be addressed. But similarly, that player will have a chance to go through the same training and education and life experiences with our group, and if they go through that, then for sure, our group will vouch for those players and give them an opportunity. If GMs and teams call us, and we feel like they've done what they've had to do to earn that privilege and be back playing professional hockey again, we'll definitely put our names on the line to vouch for those players. We don't think it's a death sentence. We think that in order to change this game, you have to educate people. But even you look at that organization that Jacob played for, they released him. That's never happened before. That organization said, enough, you're out of here.
These are things we're seeing within the culture of hockey that have never happened before that we're very happy about, in addition to the 30- and 38-game suspensions. Those are heavy suspensions, that's not a two-day weekend where you can take a road trip some place and come back and play the next weekend. That's a long time to be out to think about what you did."
A lasting impact
O'Ree's imprint on the sport will continue to be felt for generations as hockey's Jackie Robinson. Raising his No. 22 to the rafters at TD Garden helps highlight the enormous impact he's made, the future impact his actions will have and the work that remains to make the sport more inclusive for everyone.
"Willie going into the Hall of Fame in the last few years, Willie having his number retired, the educational programs he's leading, what it really amounts to is generational impact," Bryant McBride, who produced the documentary "Willie", said in a video made by the Bruins.
"Kids will look differently at the sport. They'll look differently at themselves. They'll look differently at opportunity to do anything. This is hockey's metaphor for Willie. This is about opportunity. This is about life chances. That's at the heart of what he does. He will have generational impact."