WASHINGTON (AP) — Cameras followed Willie O’Ree’s every move and flashbulbs popped as the hockey pioneer toured the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture.
When the player who broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958 stood next to a statue of Jackie Robinson, Commissioner Gary Bettman paused to take his phone out and snap a few photos of his own. O’Ree and Bettman have attended countless events together over the past two decades, but this tour on the opening day of the season and a month before they’re inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame together was a unique opportunity for an influential newsmaker to immerse himself in hundreds of years of history.
”It brought back a lot of memories for me,” O’Ree said Wednesday. ”My grandparents, they were slaves, and then bringing up to date, it’s just amazing. I had a few tears in my eyes there.”
With Bettman by his side, O’Ree wiped tears from his eyes as sports curator Damion Thomas talked about the small buildings slaves slept in in after picking cotton from sunrise to sunset. He stopped to read about Michael Jordan’s influence and got a kick out of a story about Chuck Berry driving a red Cadillac on stage to perform at St. Louis’ Fox Theatre.
Memories came flooding back in a room featuring a picture of one of Robinson’s games in Atlanta with so many people packed into the stadium that some were on the field. O’Ree sat down in one of the replica seats from Ebbets Field and recalled meeting Robinson in the dugout after a game at age 14 and telling him he played not only baseball but hockey, too.
”He remarked that, ‘I didn’t know that there were any black kids playing hockey,”’ O’Ree said. ”I said, ‘Yeah, there’s a few.”’
Thirteen years later when O’Ree was playing professional hockey in Los Angeles, a coach introduced him to Robinson. Or, rather, re-introduced him.
”Mr. Robinson turned around and said, ‘Willie O’Ree, aren’t you the young fella I met in Brooklyn?”’ O’Ree said. ”So he remembered me from 1949 to 1962 and that made a big impact on me.”
O’Ree’s impact is still being felt today as there are now more than two dozen black players in the NHL. There isn’t yet anything about the Canadian-born O’Ree in the museum, though that could change after he and Bettman got to experience what it was all about.
”This museum is amazing,” Bettman said. ”As a bit of a history buff, there’s so much I didn’t know and that I was learning and it’s clear to me that I have to come back. But as importantly to be able to experience this with Willie, special doesn’t begin to describe it.”
O’Ree, 82, also wants to return with his family after getting only 90 minutes or so to walk around. But those were some important minutes for the museum itself with a living legend in its hallways.
”It was an honor to tour through the museum with Willie,” Thomas said. ”You’re not just sharing history with a member of the public, but you’re sharing history with a history maker. So, what you hope that you’re able to do in the museum is to have people see their contributions in a much larger light, have people be able to see how their contributions connect to other parts of history.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno