Willie O’Ree, the first black player in National Hockey League history and a major champion for diversity and inclusion in hockey, will be honored by the Boston Bruins and the league this season in two major ways. His jersey number, #22, will be joining the illustrious rafters at TD Garden on February 18th before the Bruins take on the New Jersey Devils. All players between January 16th and the end of February will wear decals on their helmets that celebrate O’Ree and Martin Luther King Jr. for their contributions to diversity and equality.
O’Ree, the “Jackie Robinson of Hockey”, was often met with hate solely for his appearance. In 2007 O’Ree stated how “…fans would yell, ‘Go back to the South’ and ‘How come you’re not picking cotton?’” and he wasn’t well received by some opponents. In addition, O’Ree was also blind in his right eye. He was struck by a puck two years before his debut. He never let any of the adversity get to him though. O’Ree proved he belonged in the league by generating 14 points on 45 games across two seasons.
His play would inspire a new generation of diverse athletes to take up hockey. Mike Marson followed O’Ree’s footsteps a dozen years later and heroes such as Jarome Iginla and Anson Carter lit the way for today’s superstars including P.K. Subban, Evander Kane, Wayne Simmonds, and more. Madison Bowey even selected #22 as his jersey number during his time with the Washington Capitals, being motivated by O’Ree’s inspirational actions.
With #22 being retired by the Boston Bruins, this is a major step forward for diversity and inclusion in hockey. Who knows, #22 might become retired league wide one day like how #42 is retired for Jackie Robinson (MLB).
The NHL will also have all players wear decals for Martin Luther King Jr. and O’Ree. Both were instrumental to Black history and heritage. The decals will be worn between January 16th and the end of February. This timeline is important as January 18th coincides with both MLK Day and the 63rd anniversary of O’Ree’s first NHL game. February is Black History Month. The decal is a grayscale drawing of O’Ree in his signature fedora surrounded by the words “Celebrating Equality”.
The future is very bright for diverse athletes in hockey. Without Willie O’Ree many opportunities in the sport may not be possible today. Thank you Willie!
My name is Aaron Fesh and I am a contributor to West Division NHL content for Belly Up Sports. I spent the 2019-20 season with the National Hockey League as a member of their NHL Power Players Youth Advisory Board. Please follow @AaronFesh and @BellyUpHockey on Twitter for more hockey content like this!