NHL pioneer O’Ree ‘overwhelmed’ as No. 22 raised to rafters
BOSTON — Willie O’Ree’s No. 22 now has a permanent home in Boston’s TD Garden.
The first Black player to appear in an NHL game, O’Ree became the 12th player in franchise history to have his number retired prior to the Bruins’ matchup with the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.
The honor came 64 years to the day after he became the league’s first Black player on Jan. 18, 1958, when he suited up against the Montreal Canadiens. O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder category in 2018.
“It was a memorable night,” O’Ree said. “I’m just thrilled and overwhelmed.”
The pregame ceremony included a video montage with highlights of O’Ree’s career, as well as comments from various people who expressed how O’Ree touched their lives.
The Canadian-born O’Ree said during his speech that as a young boy growing up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, he grew up rooting for Montreal.
“But on Jan. 18, 1958, when the Bruins called me up to make my NHL debut in a game against the Canadiens, I knew my heart would be with the Bruins forever,” he said.
The ceremony was originally scheduled for last season but was postponed in hopes that both O’Ree and fans would be able to attend in person. O’Ree planned to be in attendance for the rescheduled event on Tuesday, but persisting concerns about the pandemic changed those plans. He participated virtually from his home in San Diego.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu declared Tuesday “Willie O’Ree Day,” and landmarks around the area including Boston City Hall, Fenway Park, TD Garden and Gillette Stadium were lighted in gold in his honor.
O’Ree played two games for the Bruins during the 1957-58 season, spent the next two seasons in the minor leagues, and came back to Boston for 43 more during the 1960-61 season, notching four goals and 10 assists over his 45 total games.
He did it all despite being 95% blind in his right eye.
“I told myself, ‘Willie, forget about what you can’t see and focus on what you can see,’” he said.
O’Ree previously said that while he felt embraced in Boston, his short time in the NHL wasn’t untouched by racism.
“I will never forget how my teammates in the Bruins locker room accepted me as one of their own,” O’Ree said.
He was traded to the Canadiens in 1961 but never made it back to the NHL level. He continued to play in the minors before retiring in 1979.
O’Ree has focused on the future of the league following his retirement. Since 1998, he has worked for the NHL as a diversity ambassador, trying to foster more inclusion and combat the racism that still exists in league.
Youth from SCORE Boston, a local program aimed at making hockey accessible to all kids, helped hoist O’Ree’s jersey to the rafters.
He said he hopes future generations of youth will see his No. 22 hanging there and be inspired to accomplish their own dreams.
“I think when these boys and girls come in the arena and look up at it, they’ll see you can do anything you want to do, if you set your heart and mind to it,” he said.