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.
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 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.