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:
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.