Willie O’Ree

Willie O'Ree racism in hockey
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PHT Morning Skate: Willie O’Ree, others on racism in and outside of hockey

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

O’Ree and others on racism in and around hockey

• Hockey trailblazer Willie O’Ree described George Floyd’s death and the events surrounding it as “very discouraging.” O’Ree added that, on a larger level, racism isn’t going to go away overnight. That said, after witnessing statements from the likes of Blake Wheeler acknowledging their privilege, O’Ree wonders if the truth about racism is finally “sinking in.” Maybe players can show that they’ve learned such lessons once play resumes? [CBC]

• Michael Traikos caught up with Kevin Weekes for his perspective on racism in and around hockey. On one hand, Weekes celebrates players “without a horse in the race” such as Jonathan Toews and Blake Wheeler for speaking up. On the other hand, Weekes emphasizes that there’s still a lot of work to do. [Toronto Sun]

• Jeff Veillette spots the sometimes-rampant racism in the “NHL 20” community. Unfortunately, it seems like EA Sports has a lot of work to do to improve this area. Also unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the company is putting a lot of resources into fixing this problem, either. [Faceoff Circle]

CBA talks intensify, and other hockey bits

• Both TSN’s Darren Dreger and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman report that the NHL and NHLPA are intensifying talks to extend the CBA. Stabilizing escrow is a big factor for the players, as the pandemic pause is likely to hit them hard, and for quite some time. [More detail in 31 Thoughts, in particular]

• Read up on the Sens Foundation ending its relationship with the Ottawa Senators. [Sports Daily]

Nick Foligno and his family open up a new chapter with “The Heart’s Playbook.” [The Hockey Writers]

• The Oilers realize that, with the “championship pedigree” of the Blackhawks, an upset isn’t out of the question during the Qualifying Round. [Sportsnet; also read PHT’s previews for the West here]

• Which teams are oddsmakers favoring if action starts up again? [Featurd]

• Emily Kaplan looks at a coronavirus trend for Ducks fans: getting married at the Honda Center. Pretty fun. [ESPN]

• Could the Rangers repair their relationship with Lias Andersson? Such a push could help them as early as the Qualifying Round against the Hurricanes. It certainly beats things only getting bitter and Andersson’s development stalling. [Blue Seat Blogs]

• When you get drafted 34th overall, as Dalton Smith did in 2010, you expect to play in the NHL. You don’t necessarily expect to only do so for one minute and 26 seconds in one game in late 2019 with the Sabres. Smith’s journey is quite the story by Nick Faris. [The Score]

• Grant Fuhr talks about what drove him to become a coach for one of the team’s in the upcoming 3-on-3 hockey league 3ICE. Sounds like it could be pretty wild stuff. [Desert Sun]

• Bill Hoppe goes in-depth on Victor Olofsson‘s chances of having staying power as a scorer with the Sabres. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Morning Skate: Kane on ref criticism; Rinne on future

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Evander Kane stands by his comments about officials last week and did speak with Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s director of officiating: “There’s been some dialogue, some questions and answers, but like I said, that’s what’s in the CBA, that’s what is in the rulebook. No matter what I guess transpires, the player’s accountable for it. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is what it is.” [Mercury News]

Pekka Rinne on retirement, family, the present and his future plans. [Tennessean]

• Now that Alex DeBrincat has been extended is Dylan Strome next on Stan Bowman’s list? [NBC Chicago]

• New NHL rules forcing coaches to think twice before challenging plays. [Calgary Herald]

Leon Draisaitl vs. Auston Matthews: who ya got? [Edmonton Journal]

• This is fun: the rookie cards for every NHL head coach. [Puck Junk]

• Is this a long goodbye for Taylor Hall and the Devils? [Spector’s Hockey]

• This sounds promising: “The Philadelphia Flyers announced today a new, immersive fan experience at the Wells Fargo Center, the Gritty C.O.M.M.A.N.D. Center, set to debut this Wednesday, October 9 for the Flyers home opener. This new space is the first-ever peek into Gritty’s world and offers fans the opportunity to get ‘grittified’ by professional stylists.” [Flyers]

• It’s all about simplicity as the Senators work their way through a rebuild. [The Score]

• ‘Willie,’ the autobiographical documentary about Wille O’Ree, combines worlds for Capitals part owner Sheila Johnson. [NHL.com]

• Meghan Duggan, captain of the Olympic champion U.S. hockey team, is working out through her pregnancy with a plan to return to the national team. [Olympic Talk]

• A look ahead at the week in fantasy hockey. [RotoWorld]

• Michael Leighton has announced his retirement after 18 professional seasons. [The Athletic (sub. required)]

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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.

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 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.

What Willie O’Ree’s Hall of Fame induction means to me

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Growing up in Toronto, I didn’t know much about Willie O’Ree.

It was the pre-Internet era. Mike Bossy, Val James and Grant Fuhr were my guys. Bossy shot right like I did, scored a lot of goals, and won Stanley Cups. The first hockey jersey given to me was an Islanders’ No. 22. The reason why I loved James and Fuhr was because they looked like me. I admired James’ toughness on the ice, always standing up for his Maple Leafs teammates. When I played street hockey with my friends, I got in net and wanted to play just like Fuhr.

As I got older, I learned about Willie’s story and what he meant to the game of hockey, which gave the No. 22 an even greater meaning to myself. So when I heard this past June that he would finally be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, I was thrilled.

I also wasn’t surprised. I always felt it was long overdue. 

***

Last year, I submitted a formal letter to the Hockey Hall of Fame Selection Committee explaining why Willie was worthy of induction. In my mind, he was without a doubt deserving to have a plaque hanging in Toronto. The funny thing is, as I’ve talked to people inside the game and with fans around North America over the years I discovered that many believed he was already a Hall of Famer. If that isn’t a sign that he should be in there I don’t know what is.

I decided to get involved in the campaign because I wanted him to be able to experience that honor. For all the work he’s done, he’d earned that level of recognition. I’m looking at the calendar and now time and age has really come into view. When you’re younger, you think you’re invincible and you can live forever, but as you get older time seems to go by a lot faster. As you watch your kids grow up before your eyes, you also become more aware of time.

Slowly, some of the greats in our game are passing away one at a time.

It really hit home when Pat Burns passed away in 2010. I played for Burnsie in Boston and he was one of my all-time favorite coaches. I remember attending his funeral feeling disappointed that he died without seeing his name there as part of the Hall of Fame. He should have had that opportunity to be recognized while he was still here on this earth. That still bugs me to this day.

Things like that make it hit home that life is finite. I also realized that Willie’s not getting any younger.

Willie’s case for induction was always a no-brainer. He was the first black player in the National Hockey League, but I always thought it was bigger than that. Just take a look at what he’s done in helping to grow the game the last few decades.

The fact that he’s going in as a “builder” is perfect. His passion and love for the game comes across every time you hear him speak.

I definitely don’t think Willie expected to be in the Hall of Fame. He hasn’t put in all this work to be a Hall of Famer. He just did it because he loves the game. He joined the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force in 1998 and has impacted over 122,000 individuals while working tirelessly to introduce hockey to people from all different backgrounds.

I’ve tried to help spread Willie’s gospel since my playing days. Whether it was the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone, the SCORE Boston Hockey program or Ice Hockey in Harlem in New York City, being part of those programs has been important to me.

I always felt it was important for these young kids to see that I wasn’t just some hockey player they watch on TV and I wasn’t a video game avatar. I wanted to show them that I was real person just like them. I wanted them feel like they could interact with me and could be just like me. Most importantly, I just wanted them to fall in love with the game as much as I did.

And there’s still plenty of work to be done.

I think what we collectively can do is find ways to continue to make hockey more accessible to kids and offer more affordable equipment. Just providing equipment for them to play can go a long way. Try Hockey for Free is something that every NHL city offers. It’s a terrific program providing young people with an opportunity to just give hockey a chance. I’ve never heard anyone say “Well, I tried it and I hated it” and I’ve never heard anyone say “I went to a game and it was brutal.” It’s the exact opposite reaction every time.

The hardest part was always getting someone to try it or trying to convince them to attend a game. The typical excuses I heard were “It’s too expensive” or “There’s not enough players that look like me.” Once they actually come, sit in the seats, and appreciate the speed and athleticism of the players inside the arena, they’re hooked. It happened to me. My parents are from Barbados. I always say that the only time they saw ice was in their drinks. The game of hockey was so foreign to them but they fell in love with it because we grew up in Toronto and it was everywhere.

[2018 Hockey Hall of Fame class changed the game]

There’s over seven billion people on this planet. Only 700 individuals earn the privilege to play in the NHL every single year. The chance that these kids play hockey at a young age and then at the NHL level is very slim. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about just picking up a stick, putting skates on. After that, if you fall in love with the game, anything’s possible.

The NHL is constantly trying to increase hockey’s global footprint in this digital age. As the sport continues to grow it’s not going to come from our hardcore base of hockey fans. They aren’t going anywhere and we can never take them for granted, but it’s going to come from people that look like myself. A popular narrative describing an NHL player when I played was “He grew up on a farm in Western Canada, so he must come from a family with good values and a strong work ethic. He has to be a good person we’re willing to take a chance on.” Well, I always wanted to flip that upside down and suggest what about a player whose parents came to Canada with nothing from Barbados and raised three successful children giving them everything they could ever ask for from scratch? That sounds just as impressive, don’t you think?

We’ll hear about those stories more frequently as the NHL continues to evolve.

***

What Willie did back in 1958, becoming the first black player to play in the NHL, it took a special person to do that. It took a special soul to handle what he had to deal with — the racial slurs, taunts and all the garbage that some fans threw his way because he looked different than everyone else.

He’s such a tremendous ambassador. He’s never had a bad day. No one’s perfect, I understand that, but every time I see Willie he’s always got a smile on his face. He always has time for people. Some people have to fake that, but for him, it comes natural.

Willie’s 83 now, but sometimes I forget how old he is because when we’re out together he’s always wondering what the next spot is that we’re going to and what group of kids we’re going to work with that day. I could never look at him and say that I’m tired of working with young people when I see him working non-stop.

***

Wayne Gretzky is the greatest player of all-time. When he was traded to the Kings the entire country of Canada was devastated at the thought of losing a national treasure like the Great One to the United States.

In reality, that was the best thing that ever happened to our game. Gretzky was the seed planted in Los Angeles that was catalyst for the growth in many non-traditional hockey markets around the U.S. that we see today. That trade moved the interest needle of the casual sports fan and put in motion the birth of expansion teams in the West and the Sunbelt states.

Gretz might be the seed, but Willie’s the water that helps it grow.

Willie’s hopping on planes, criss-crossing the country to introduce the game of hockey to kids who might not otherwise get the opportunity. He’s impacting people on a personal level and spreading such a positive message.

It shouldn’t just be people of color that should be proud that Willie’s finally being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Willie never cared what race you were, if you were a boy or girl or even what your sexual orientation might be because we both share the belief that hockey is for everyone.

Willie has always been a Hall of Famer in my eyes and now that it’s official, he’ll be seen that way by everyone else, too.

Anson Carter has served as a studio analyst for NBC Sports Group’s NHL coverage on NHL Live and NHL Overtime, NBCSN’s NHL pre- and post-game shows since 2013. Over the course of his 11 NHL seasons from 1996 through 2007, Carter played in 674 games, producing 202 goals and 219 assists with the Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Carolina Hurricanes.

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.”

***

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.