Willie O’Ree, the National Hockey League’s first black hockey player considered a legend, met with girls and boys hockey teams at East Side High School in Newark Wednesday.
O’Ree also serves as the Diversity Ambassador for the Hockey is for Everyone initiative, which is being recognized throughout the month of February for Black History Month. He has helped to introduce more than 85,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds to unique hockey experiences via the NHL program. O’Ree stresses essential life skills, education and the core values of hockey; commitment, perseverance and teamwork as part of his travels to students across North America.
“I wanted to stay connected to the game of hockey and the best way to do that was to play, work for them or to do community service. I ended up playing for them and doing community service, which I love because it gives me the opportunity to speak to girls and boys to stress the importance of education first, even if you love to play hockey,” said O’Ree.
O’Ree played with the Boston Bruins in the beginning of his career from 1958 to 1961. His professional career spanned 21 seasons, mostly in the Western Hockey League with the Los Angeles Blades and the San Diego Gulls. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors including inaugural recipient of the Bill Walsh Champion of Change Award and in 2010 he received the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civilian honor. In 2011, O’Ree received the Sports Museum’s Hockey Legacy Award in recognition of his trailblazing NHL career and his many contributions to the hockey community.
“As a black man, we often traveled to places that were not very friendly to me, but I kept focused on my goal to play hockey…I met Jackie Robinson in 1969, he said he was told I was the Jackie Robinson of hockey. When I saw him 13 years later, he said, ‘Aren’t you Mr. O’Ree?”
The New Jersey Devils will host O’Ree and NPS students Thursday at the Prudential Center.