The Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF) Induction weekend is a focal point in the NHL schedule where the sports most honoured former stars and contributors have their names etched into the game’s history. In November 2018 the hockey world acknowledged the tremendous impact our good friend Willie O’Ree has had on the game of hockey and the lives of countless youth across North America. HEROS has had the great honour to work with Willie for the past several years promoting an inclusive approach towards the game and we are all so pleased to see this worthy individual get the recognition he deserves.
In 1955, Willie O’Ree was called up to the NHL by the Boston Bruins and became the first black player to suit up for an NHL team. Willie played 2 games before returning to an affiliate team and was called up once more in 1961 and played 43 more games. Willie acknowledges the abuse and racism he endured during his playing time, responding to it with a superior grace and humility, explaining that, “I just wanted to be a hockey player, and they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.” Willie admitted in his HHOF speech he did not know he was the first black NHL player until he read about it in the newspaper the day after his first call up in 1955.
While Willie’s contributions to the game of hockey are profound, his induction into the HHOF is also a result of his work after he hung up his skates. Since 1993, Willie has been the ambassador for inclusion on behalf of the NHL, leading the Hockey is for Everyone initiative. Willie’s HHOF acceptance speech echoed many of the messages he shares to youth all over North America, “true strength comes from diversity and inclusion – it makes kids better, families better, it makes the game better.” Willie just wanted the opportunity to play and has made it his mission to promote this message to kids all across North America.
HEROS has been fortunate to take part in the Willie O’Ree weekend every February for the past 19 years, a weekend dedicated to programs like HEROS which brings participants from across Canada and the United States for an action-packed weekend of hockey and exploring. Keep an eye out for next months Along the Boards issue when we chronicle some our HEROS taking part in Willie O’Ree Weekend 2019.
We cannot thank Willie enough for the contributions he has made to the game of hockey and his participation with HEROS. Congratulations Willie from all of us HEROS!