It took far too long, but Willie O’Ree is finally getting the grand enshrinement he deserves.
Sixty years after he broke the NHL’s color barrier, O’Ree was finally selected for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Tuesday, joining the Hall in the Builder category. O’Ree has worked with the NHL since 1998 as director of youth development and diversity ambassador as part of its Hockey is for Everyone initiative.
“This honour would not be possible if I had not rejoined the league in 1996,” O’Ree said in a release. “I was given a second wind to give back to the game and I am honoured to be recognized.”
Commissioner Gary Bettman will also be inducted as a Builder. The 2018 player class is Martin Brodeur, Martin St. Louis, Jayna Hefford and Alexander Yakushev.
The honor is long overdue for the 82-year-old O’Ree, who made his NHL debut with the Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, not realizing until reading a newspaper the following morning that he was the first black player in NHL history. O’Ree spent most of his 21-year playing career with the Los Angeles Blades and the San Diego Gulls of the old Western Hockey League.
See O'Ree through the years:
Willie O'Ree, first black player in the NHL
Willie O'Ree, first black player in the NHL
Willie O'Ree, 22, of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, is the first Negro player in the National Hockey League. He played his first game here, Jan. 18th, helping the Boston Bruins to shut out the Montreal Canadians, 3-0.
NEW YORK, NY - 1961: Willie O'Ree #25 of the Boston Bruins skates with the puck as Camille Henry #21 of the New York Rangers looks defend during their NHL game circa 1961 at the Madison Square Garden in New York, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - 1963: Willie O'Ree #10 and Howie Young #2 of the Los Angeles Blades talk during warm ups before their game at the Los Angeles Sports Arena during the 1963-64 season in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)
1998 Season: Willie O'Ree. (Photo by John Giamundo/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - OCTOBER 2: Former Hocky Pro Willie O'Ree attends the NHL and Esquire season launch party at Esquire North October 2, 2007 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for NHL)
WEST ROXBURY, MA - JANUARY 18: Willie O'Ree, former member of Boston Bruins poses with Principal Eileen Nash before he speaks to her students at Ludwig Van Beethoven School January 18, 2008 in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. O'Ree was celebrating his 50 year anniversary as the first black player to play in the National Hockey League as he traveled with fans from his hometown of Fredericton New Brunswick Canada. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
BOSTON - JANUARY 19: Former Boston Bruin Willie O'Ree accepts ceremonial puck from Zdeno Chara #33 of the Boston Bruins and Jaromir Jagr #68 of the New York Rangers while celebrating his 50th anniversary since becoming the first black player to play in the NHL at TD Banknorth Garden January 19, 2008 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
BOSTON - JANUARY 19: Willie O'Ree (L) formerly of the Boston Bruins accepts proclamation for announcing 'Willie O'Ree Day' from Mayor Thomas M.Menino at TD Banknorth Garden January 19, 2008 in Boston, Massachusetts. O'Ree was celebrating his 50th anniversary as being the first black player to play in the NHL. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
ATLANTA - JANUARY 27: NHL All Star Game Honoree Willie O'Ree attends the All-Star Game as part of the 2008 NHL All-Star weekend at Philips Arena on January 27, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Frank Mullen/NHLI via Getty Images)
SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 14: Zdeno Chara #33 of the Boston Bruins shakes hands with Willie O'Ree before an NHL game against the San Jose Sharks on January 14, 2010 at HP Pavilion at San Jose in San Jose, California. (Photo by Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
DAYTONA BEACH, FL - MARCH 06: Willie O'Ree (R) and Tony McKegney speak with kids of the 'Bolts' hockey team during the Florida hockey day at the Daytona Ice Arena on March 6, 2010 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images for NHL)
BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 27: Former NHL player Willie O'Ree watches the action between the Buffalo Sabres and the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 27, 2010 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 28: NHL Ambassador Willie O'Ree speaks from the podium during the 2012 NHL All-Star Game - H.E.R.O.S. Community Program Launch at Rideau Hall on January 28, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JUNE 17: Boston Bruins legend Willie O'Ree watches the game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Bruins in Game Three of the Stanley Cup Final at the TD Garden on June 17, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Gail Oskin/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - FEBRUARY 22: Willie Eldon O'Ree, known best for being the first black player in the National Hockey League, looks on during the national anthem before the game against the Boston Bruins on February 22, 2017 at Honda Center in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 21: Willie O'Ree, the first black NHL player, stands while Leo Welsh sings the national anthem before the first period in a game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Los Angeles Kings on October 21, 2017, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, OH.(Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
BOSTON - JANUARY 17: Former Boston Bruins player Willie O'Ree, the first black player in the NHL waves his hat to the crowd as he is honored on the ice before the game. The Boston Bruins host the Montreal Canadiens in a regular season NHL hockey game at TD Garden in Boston on Jan. 17, 2018. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 27: Former NHL player Willie O'Ree meets with Jaydon Jones (R) and Justin Brass prior to the 2018 GEICO NHL All-Star Skills Competition at Amalie Arena on January 27, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 28: Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning shakes the hand of former NHL player Willie O'Ree in between periods of the 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game between the Atlantic Division and the Metropolitan Divison at Amalie Arena on January 28, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 20: Willie O'Ree, NHL Director of Youth Development, poses for photos on the red carpet during the 2018 NHL Awards presented by Hulu at The Joint, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on June 20, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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The pioneer from Fredericton, New Brunswick made it to the NHL despite being nearly completely blind in his right eye, caused by a slap shot when he was playing in junior hockey. He played two games in the 1957-58 season and 43 more in 1960-61 while receiving racial abuse from fans in certain cities. There wouldn’t be another black player in the NHL until 1974 when Mike Marson played for the Capitals.
A number of black players have credited O’Ree for creating their path to the NHL. Earlier this year, Wayne Simmonds penned a piece for the Players’ Tribune advocating for O’Ree to be enshrined.
“I can’t think of anyone who has done more to broaden the appeal of our great sport to new audiences,” Simmonds wrote. “He’s a living hero to so many of us, and he deserves to be honored as a legend of the game.”
Earlier this year, O’Ree was honored in Boston the day before the 60th anniversary of his first NHL game. Boston mayor Marty Walsh declared Jan. 18, 2018 to be Willie O’Ree Day.