Willie O’Ree continues to spread his message of positivity

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PHILADELPHIA — At 83 years old there’s no slowing down Willie O’Ree. 

For a number of days every year, O’Ree is on the road meeting with young players, spreading the gospel of hockey and passing on the positivity that emanates from his body. 

Hours before Saturday’s Stadium Series game at Lincoln Financial Field, O’Ree was at the Penn Ice Rink at the Class of 1923 Arena in Philadelphia for the annual Willie O’Ree Skills Weekend, which was in conjunction with the NHL, Philadelphia Flyers and the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. The event was open to kids involved in the Hockey Is For Everyone programs across North America.

O’Ree using his time Saturday morning to speak to kids is what put him in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder. His hockey career was spent mostly in the minor leagues as he only played 45 games with the Boston Bruins, becoming the first black player in the NHL. His biggest impact has come out of uniform.

“My dad said, ‘Willie, find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,’ and there’s a lot of truth to that,” O’Ree told Pro Hockey Talk following the event. “Find something that you really enjoy doing and it doesn’t seem like a job. That’s the position I have with the Hockey is For Everyone program, getting around to meeting these kids and helping them set goals for themselves and helping them become better citizens and believing in themselves.

“You have to believe in yourself. If you feel good [in your heart] and [in your head] then you can do anything you can set your mind to do.”

We spoke to O’Ree about the message he tries to send to kids, his Hall of Fame induction, and more.

Enjoy.

Q. When you do these clinics what’s the main message you try to drive home to these kids?

O’REE: “Just let them know that there is another sport that they can play and to set goals for themselves and work towards [their] goals. Goal setting is very, very important. These boys and girls at the ages now, they need to set goals for themselves and what they want to do later on in their life, what they want to become, and stay focused on what they want to do.

“There’s no substitute for hard work. There’s none. If anybody tells you there is, they’re lying to you. You only get out of a thing what you put into it. … Hockey’s a fun sport. If you’re not having fun, don’t play it. There’s no sense in wasting your time and wasting the instructor’s time who are out there to help you not only develop your skills [but] work on becoming better hockey players.”

Q. Is there more the NHL, players and hockey community can do?

O’REE: “Word of mouth is big. Tell your neighbor or tell somebody that you know about playing the game and getting involved in the sport. The kids have the opportunity now to watch it on the television. They have the opportunity to go to the games and watch it. If you set your mind to what you want to do then you can work at it and you can make it happen. You can.”

Q. Have you always carried this air of positivity?

O’REE:  “I’m a positive person; always have been. I don’t believe in being around negative people. I was the youngest of 13 children. Thanks to my older brother, who was not only my brother and my friend, but he was my mentor. We were the only two that played hockey. I had the pleasure of playing with him on two or three different teams before I left my home to go play junior in 1955. You just have to believe in yourself and feel good about yourself and like yourself.

“When I was playing, besides being blind and being black, I was faced with four other things: racism, prejudice, bigotry, and ignorance. There wasn’t a game that went by that there were not racial remarks and racial slurs directed towards me because of my color. Again, thanks to my older brother who told me, ‘Willie, if people can’t accept you for the individual that you are, don’t worry about it. That’s their problem, that’s not your problem. You just go out and work hard and do what you do best.’

“The quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘Don’t judge a person by the color of the skin but the content of their character,’ and there’s so much truth to that. When I get up in the morning and look in the mirror I don’t see a brown man or a black man, I just see a man. It’s too bad that these people that go to these sporting events and make racial slurs and racial remarks because of people’s color, it’s not going to change over night. It’s going to take a lot of education and more players of color getting into the league, and pretty soon they’ll just look at them as just another player.”

Q. When you see racial slurs directed at players still — the youth player in Washington D.C. and Devante Smith-Pelly in Chicago last season — how much does that still frustrate you?

O’REE: “Oh, it frustrates me a lot. I get letters and phone calls from young boys and girls, 10-13-year old boys and girls that have had problems on the ice, coming off the ice while they’re playing and having the n-word and ‘you should be back picking cotton’ [said to them] and things like that. That’s just ignorance. Someone that’s well-educated person wouldn’t do that. Some of these people, that’s just who they are. But it’s going to take work. We’re working at it. You just have to keep working at it, working at it. Hopefully one day we won’t have this.”

Q. It’s been a few months since your Hall of Fame induction. Has it hit you that “Willie O’Ree” and “Hall of Famer” are now together?

O’REE: “I’m still kind of enlightened about me being in the Hall of Fame. A lot of people come up [to me] and say ‘Willie, I thought you were in the Hall of Fame years ago.’ I just told them some things take a little longer than others. I knew I wasn’t going in as a hockey player because I only played 45 games in the NHL. But being involved with this Hockey is for Everyone program over the 20 years, there was the chance of me going in as a builder.

“When I really look at it, I’ve always worked hard at my job. I’ve always tried to be the best person I could be. When I retired in 1980, I felt that I had something to give back to the sport and give back to the community for what hockey had given me over the 21 years that I had the pleasure of playing. … I just love what I do.”

The American Legacy Black Hockey History Tour will visit finish its NHL arena tour at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Feb. 25-27. The 525-square foot mobile museum will look back at the founders, trailblazers, history makers and Stanley Cup champions, and look ahead to the next generation of young stars, NHL officials, broadcasters and women in the game. Find more information at NHL.com/BlackHockeyHistory.

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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.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.