Willie O’Ree’s passion for growing game earns him Hockey Hall call

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Willie O’Ree spent Tuesday at his home pacing, wondering if he was going to receive a call with a 416 area code. That call would eventually come in the afternoon and inform him that he was part of the 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame class along with Gary Bettman, Martin Brodeur, Jayna Hefford, Martin St. Louis and Alexander Yakushev.

“I was laughing and I was crying and I was at a loss for words,” said O’Ree after hearing the news from Hall Chairman of the Board Lanny MacDonald and John Davidson, Chairman of the Selection Committee. “It’s just been a great year this year and I’m just so happy that I’m alive to be able to share this induction into the Hall of Fame with not only my family but a lot of my friends that I’ve known over the years since I came to work for the National Hockey League and working for the children in the Hockey is For Everyone [program.] There’s not enough words I can say how pleased I am to be one of the inductees.”

[A look at the 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame class]

O’Ree, who became the first black player to play in the NHL in 1958 and retired after a playing career that spanned over 20 years in various leagues, will be inducted in November in the Builder category for his work promoting the game.

Since 1998, O’Ree, 82, has been the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador for the Hockey is for Everyone Program and also worked as its Director of Youth Development. According to the league, the HFE program has introduced over 120,000 children to the game of hockey. Constantly on the road, he’s had a big hand in helping establish 39 grassroots programs helping disadvantaged youth around North America.

“Just getting to know him over the 20 years, seeing the way he interacts with young people and the difference that he makes in their lives was absolutely one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as commissioner,” said Bettman.

There are many current and former NHLers of color who were inspired by O’Ree’s love of the game. For every pregame ceremony honoring him at rinks around the league, his impact is felt by the reception he receives from not only fans in attendance, but also the players waiting to shake his hand.

“It’s been a long time coming,” NBC analyst Anson Carter told Pro Hockey Talk. “For someone like Willie that’s put in over 20 year as a builder in our game and being the first black hockey player to break that color barrier 60 years ago, I think the Hall of Fame committee got it right. It’s not to say that the guys that got in before him didn’t deserve it, but Willie O’Ree, what he’s meant to the game and how he’s helped grow the game south of the border, I think his due was a long time coming.”

“Without you, Willie, none of it [my hockey career] would be possible,” said Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban in a Twitter video.

Mike Marson followed in O’Ree’s footsteps in 1974 after being drafted by the Washington Capitals. But in those 16 years, and even before he broke the league’s color barrier, O’Ree knew he shouldn’t have been alone.

“I knew that there were other black players playing in other leagues that were good enough to play in the National Hockey League,” O’Ree said. “I don’t know why it took [16] years, but now there’s 31 teams in the league and you can see the black players and players of color that are playing. They’re there because they have the skills and the ability to be in the league. They’re not there just because of their color.”

When O’Ree retired from playing, he wanted to stay involved either by coaching, scouting or working in community service. Eventually the NHL approached him to be a part of their diversity task force. There were only five diversity programs around North America and now there are over 40, which help build community rinks and run clinics.

One of the biggest impacts O’Ree has made through the programs is exposing the game to kids who may not have had the chance to play.

“He’s always been somebody that empowers other people and he puts hockey first,” said former NHL goaltender and current NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes. “He puts the game first. He puts our great sport first in a way that’s very selfless. We’ve been around a lot of people over the years, but I love the selflessness that he has and the commitment and dedication to this great sport in making it better.”

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In 2012 I had the chance to talk with O’Ree at the NHL’s office in New York City. I spent the hour sitting back and listening to story after story about his hockey career and his various efforts working with kids through the HFE program.

There’s one constant message he tries to get across to not just kids, but to anyone he speaks with.

“You have to believe in yourself and you have to like yourself to be able to reach your goals,” he said. “My expression is ‘If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right,’ and there’s a lot of truth in that. If you set goals for yourself and work towards your goals and make things happen, everything seems to work out.”

He made history, had a long playing career and will now have “Hall of Famer” attached to his name forever. But for O’Ree, those aren’t always the honors he holds up high.

“Besides playing pro hockey and playing in the NHL, which is the greatest thing I ever did, working with these kids today and being able to just help them set goals for themselves and work with them towards their goals is a great thing,” he said. “I think sometimes it’s better than me breaking the color barrier.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.