BOSTON – A half-century later, Willie O’Ree took his place beside some of the most dazzling names in sports.
The man who broke the NHL’s racial barrier joined such New England sports greats as Ted Williams, Bill Russell, Bobby Orr, Larry Bird and Tom Brady.
One day and 50 years ago, O’Ree stepped on the ice at the Montreal Forum as the sport’s first black player. Now, The Sports Museum of New England has honoured the 72-year-old Fredericton native with his own exhibit.
“I’ve been talking and done so many interviews and radio and TV, but when I looked at them, I had flashbacks and I could remember each and every picture that was there,” O’Ree said, with his wife, son and daughter looking on before the Bruins-Rangers game.
His No. 22 uniform sweater and a commissioned portrait serve as the two centrepieces of the “Willie O’Ree: Hockey Pioneer” display unveiled on the fifth floor of TD Banknorth Garden.
“On the roster of all-time Bruins players, Willie’s name falls between Terry O’Reilly and Bobby Orr. More importantly, though, I feel his name falls between that of Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson,” said Dick Johnson, The Sports Museum curator.
O’Ree lent the museum all the items for the exhibit from his personal collection.
“It’s a privilege for us to be here to honour him in his hockey home of Boston 50 years from the day he first made it on the ice,” Johnson added. “Willie, you have been a part of the sports museum and will be a part of it forever.”
The Bruins continued their tribute with on-ice logos behind each net and banners on the side and corner boards commemorating the anniversary.
O’Ree is currently director of youth development for the NHL’s diversity program. O’Ree was escorted by two children of the program to centre ice for a ceremonial puck drop before the game.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and former teammate Johnny Bucyk honoured O’Ree during the first break between periods. NHL Players Association chief Paul Kelly announced a donation of US$10,000 to SCORE Boston, O’Ree’s program to promote and develop the sport in underprivileged areas of Boston.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words and I shouldn’t be because of all the speaking engagements over the years,” O’Ree said. “This is a very, very special day for me.”