BOSTON (CBS) — Willie O’Ree, the man who broke the NHL’s color barrier with the Boston Bruins in 1958, has finally taken his spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
O’Ree was enshrined in Toronto Monday night along with NHL stars Martin Brodeur and Martin St. Louis, Canadian women’s star Jayna Hefford, Russian great Alexander Yakushev and current NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
“All I wanted to be was a hockey player,” the 83-year-old said in his enshrinement speech. “All I needed was the opportunity. To be here with you tonight is simply overwhelming. There are no words to express how humble and grateful I am to be part of the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
O’Ree became the first black player to hit the ice in the NHL on Jan. 18, 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens. He played just two games for Boston that season, and did not return to the NHL until 1961 when he saw action in 43 games. He finished his playing career with four goals and 10 assists.
Making his career even more impressive is the fact that O’Ree hid that he was blind in his right eye when Boston called him up. He lost sight in his eye when he was hit with an errant shot in Juniors three years before making his NHL debut, and a doctor told him that he would never play professional hockey.
But that didn’t stop O’Ree from fulfilling his dream.
“Those words did not discourage me; they fueled me to try harder. To never give up,” said O’Ree.
O’Ree was enshrined as a “builder” of the game, not only for breaking the color barrier, but for serving as an ambassador for the game over the last 60 years. He has been the diversity ambassador of the Hockey is for Everyone initiative since 1998, introducing more than 120,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds to the game.
“True strength comes from diversity and inclusion. It makes kids better, families better, it makes the game better. We know that because of Mike Marson, Jarome Iginla, Grant Furh, and so many other who have also broken barriers. Tonight, I am here to tell you we are not done. Because the work is not done,” said O’Ree. “We have barriers to break and knock down, opportunities to give. I leave this with you; when you return to your communities, take a look around. Find a young boy or girl who needs the opportunity to play hockey and give it to them. You never know, they may make history.”
O’Ree is the third black player in the Hall, joining Fuhr (who won 403 games in net over his 19-year NHL career) and Canadian women’s national team captain Angela James.