If you have travelled in NHL circles for any amount of time, you’ve seen Willie O’Ree. He is a mainstay at major events and a magnet for fans of the game no matter what city he is in. And as it turns out, his fanbase goes all the way to the top.
Commissioner Gary Bettman recently visited The Hockey News offices for an upcoming issue and revealed how excited he was to find out if O’Ree had made the Hall of Fame class this year. As it turns out, of course, both men made the cut. But when Bettman got a phone call from the Hall of Fame committee during a retirement party for longtime NHL public relations exec Frank Brown, he only picked up the phone for one reason.
“Before they could say anything, I said, ‘Did Willie get in?’ ” Bettman said. “They said, ‘Well, we’re not calling about that.’ But the last thing I said on the call, where they told me I had been selected – and I was stunned, surprised and speechless, which for me was some trick – but the last thing I said was ‘Did Willie get in?’ And they said he doesn’t know yet, but he did.”
Bettman had been focused on the 60th anniversary of O’Ree breaking hockey’s color barrier. He estimates that O’Ree has worked with 100,000 young people over the past 20 years as an ambassador for the league and now, the former Boston Bruins right winger is getting his plaque.
Now, the Hall of Fame has gotten a lot of things wrong in recent years, so it’s nice to see them get something right here. At times, it seems like certain players inducted should really belong in the Hall of Very Good and if you’re taking “Fame” to mean “the best,” then the list is slightly off right now.
I also have a lot of concern about the builders category, specifically when it comes to team owners. For example, does Harold Ballard belong in the same building as Bobby Orr?
What O’Ree brings to the Hall of Fame may be the purest representation of “Fame” that there is. Everybody knows him. Everybody knows what he did and to this day, the ramifications of his determination are obvious in the sport.
“It has been an incredible pleasure meeting him and his family,” said Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president, social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. “Understanding how he grew up, his family background, the grit and the resilience…He’s a true hero. To think about playing the sport of hockey at that time without an eye? That right there is incredible and to keep that secret – because we all know if they had known that he never would have played – the confidence that must have taken to keep that secret and know that he could still compete is incredible. It’s not just the indignities he suffered, but the grace he showed in going through that…it reminds me of my own grandfather. It shows you what true heroism looks like.”
The outpouring of testimonials surrounding O’Ree’s induction are practically unprecedented and because of his ambassadorship, his work in the hockey world was not limited to his playing days.
It’s almost too obvious to even need pointing out, but O’Ree went from a trailblazer to a living legend because he’s always there for people, particularly the young kids who are just discovering their passion for hockey.
The sport we love is still overwhelmingly white and because of that, representation is important. The grassroots game in the United States continues to grow and the footprint of the sport left the traditional “Three Ms” of Minnesota, Massachusetts and Michigan long ago. Those places are still strongholds of course, but now you can add California, Florida and Texas as southern locales where interest continues to flourish.
In O’Ree, those who are just learning about the game have a man who is approachable and earnest, a guide for youngsters of all races and genders. He didn’t just open the door for everyone; he continues to hold it open. And if that’s not someone who deserves to be remembered forever, I don’t know who does.