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PITTSBURGH — Willie O’Ree is one of the NHL’s pioneers having broken the league’s color barrier during the 1957-58 season when he first suited up for the Boston Bruins.
The 82-year-old O’Ree, who still looks like he could take a shift in the NHL if he wanted to, was in Pittsburgh on Thursday night to take in the Penguins’ game against the Los Angeles Kings and received a pre-game promise from Ryan Reaves, one of the current players he helped open the door for in the NHL several decades earlier.
In a meeting before the game, Reaves told O’Ree that he was going to try and have a big game for him and then proceeded to go out and score the game’s opening goal in the Penguins’ 3-1 win.
O’Ree was interviewed in the arena during a TV timeout and said that he spoke to Reaves before the game and that he actually promised him a goal. At that point Reaves stood at the Penguins’ bench and tapped his stick on the boards.
He had a chance to keep the promise early in the game only to be stopped on a breakaway by Kings goalie Jonathan Quick. He would finally get that goal in the second period when he unleashed a pretty wicked shot from just above the right circle to beat Quick and give the Penguins a 1-0 lead.
After the game there was some confusion as to whether or not Reaves had actually promised O’Ree a goal.
“I don’t promise goals,” laughed Reaves. “I can not promise goals. I do not know if you have seen my scoring touch, but I said I was going to have a good game for him, hopefully get him one. Then I did.”
Reaves, one of the NHL’s current black players, said it was a huge honor and a thrill to play in front of O’Ree.
“Coming off the last game, I don’t know if you guys watch too much hockey, but I was absolutely horrendous in our last game and I needed a bounce back,” said Reaves when asked what that moment was like. “Obviously with Willie O’Ree in the house it was pretty special. He was a pioneer for players like me and it was nice to get him one.”
“That is somebody you look up to. He was big in the NHL, big in all sports for players like me.”
Given what O’Ree was able to accomplish it is fairly stunning that he has not yet been honored with a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Even though his career lasted just 45 games over two seasons and resulted in only 14 points, his impact can not be measured in games played or points. It is bigger than that, and the NHL has a specific category for people like him that have advanced the game. It’s called the Builders category, and it absolutely applies to people like O’Ree.
Here is what the NHL says about the basis of selection for builders.
Coaching, managerial or executive ability, or ability in another significant off-ice role, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general.
That is pretty open for interpretation, but breaking the NHL’s color barrier seems to be a significant contribution to the game of hockey in general.
I asked Reaves after the game if it was long overdue for O’Ree to get a spot.
“Absolutely,” said Reaves. “I think it should have been done once he retired. A guy that has the balls to do something like that and jump into the NHL, he was the first black player to do that, it is a special thing.”
Indeed it is. Other sports seem to agree as almost all of the players that have broken the color barrier in the other three major North American sports have a spot in their sports respective Hall of Fame.
Jackie Robinson, having broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Three years later Earl Lloyd broke the NBA’s color barrier and was inducted into the Basketball Hall Of Fame in 2003 as a contributor.
Marion Motley and Bill Willis broke professional football’s color barrier in 1946 when they played for the Cleveland Browns in the old All America Football Conference. Both are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (it is worth pointing out that Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, who would go on to be the first black players in the NFL several weeks later when they played for the Los Angeles Rams, are not currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame).
Probably time to get O’Ree a spot in Toronto.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.