Home Local NewsLocal SportsAnaheim Willie O’Ree still dedicated to growing hockey, advocating for social change

Willie O’Ree still dedicated to growing hockey, advocating for social change

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Before the Kings took their thrones in L.A., the Ducks migrated to Anaheim or Wayne Gretzky touched down in Southern California, Willie O’Ree was one of the region’s first hockey stars, illuminating the ice with the Los Angeles Blades and the original San Diego Gulls.

O’Ree, who had broken the NHL’s color barrier as its first Black player with the Boston Bruins in 1958 (a decade and a half before another would arrive in the pros) became a goal-scoring champion in the old Western Hockey League, partially because of a move to right wing, where he could finally see oncoming passes. O’Ree, now 88, was struck with a puck at age 19, costing him vision in his right eye, a limitation he kept a secret to continue playing hockey. So committed was O’Ree that his parents died thinking he was able to see from both eyes.

“The dreams and goals that I set for myself, seemingly were gone,” O’Ree said. “I got out of the hospital, and within five weeks I’m back on the ice. I’m a left-handed shot playing left wing, so to compensate, I had to turn my head all the way around to the right to pick the puck up. I came down and I was missing the net, and I said ‘just forget about what you can’t see and concentrate on what you can see.’”

Ahead of Tuesday’s Freeway Faceoff between the Ducks and Kings, he extended another type of commitment, his steadfast dedication to growing the game across regional and identity lines alike, as a diverse collection of players from all over North America gathered in Anaheim for on-ice work, trips to pro games and meetings with O’Ree as well as Ducks star Troy Terry, among others.

“You don’t have to spend a lot of time just meeting them for the first time and shaking their hands. These kids will never forget coming here to Anaheim,” O’Ree said. “Fifteen years from now, you could ask them, I bet you could tell you the hotel they stayed in, who they played with and everything else, because things like this mean so much to them.”

O’Ree has been honored with such distinctions as the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal and the Order of Canada. He’s also seen players he’s inspired move on to magnificence. Though the number of Black, Asian, Latino, indigenous and other minority NHL players has remained low, Black players have become a head coach (Dirk Graham, who was also the first of four Black NHL team captains), a Norris Trophy winner (P.K. Subban), a Vezina Trophy winner (Grant Fuhr), an All-Star Game MVP (Wayne Simmonds), an Art Ross Trophy winner (Jarome Iginla) and, most recently, a general manager (Mike Grier).

While O’Ree cherishes the esteem and gratitude he’s felt from subsequent pioneers, he also looked forward to meeting new trailblazers, such as Arcadia’s own Jason Robertson, a Filipino-American who has become an unstoppable force for the Dallas Stars while his brother Nick has cracked the Toronto Maple Leafs’ roster.

“Today, you’ve got East Indian players, West Indian players, Asian players. If you don’t have Mr. O’Ree breaking that color barrier, I don’t think that happens,” said Simmonds, who began his NHL career with the Kings. “It’s not only just for black hockey players – obviously he’s a big inspiration for us – but he helped break down a lot of different stereotypes.”

O’Ree has been very enthused to see the proliferation of participation in women’s hockey, from the grassroots level to the inaugural season of the PWHL.

“I’m so tickled about the growth of women’s sports. I’ve had girls at these Willie O’Ree weekends who have outshined the boys. You couldn’t tell, until they took their helmets off, that they were any different,” O’Ree said.

Even though his playing days ended about 45 years ago, O’Ree still logs plenty of miles in the air, using La Mesa as a launching pad to travel extensively, mostly through the U.S.

But as a young multi-sport athlete in New Brunswick, his initial crossing of Canada’s southern border was informative, formative and harrowing. He was invited to a minor-league baseball tryout for the Milwaukee Braves with their affiliate in Georgia, where O’Ree said he experienced bigotry, segregation and ugliness to which he had not been exposed. When he was cut from the team, O’Ree said he exhibited sadness but felt jubilation at the prospect of returning home.

“Blacks had to sit at the back of the bus. In five days on the bus, as we’re rambling up through the north, I start moving up on the bus,” O’Ree said. “Now I’m sitting at the center of the bus. I arrived in Bangor, Maine, and then I was sitting at the front of the bus. Another three hours, I’m in my hometown and I stepped off the bus and said to myself, ‘Willie, forget about baseball, concentrate on hockey.’”

O’Ree was traded to the Blades at a time when he was still in the continuum of NHL-affiliated clubs, which the Blades were not. But the ostensible demotion took O’Ree to the region he’s called home since the 1960s, where he met his wife, created his family and cemented his presence in several communities.

“The best move I ever made was coming here,” O’Ree said.

“Being from the eastern part of Canada where there’s eight feet of snow everywhere you look in the wintertime, coming out here, I fell in love with the climate. The team I played for treated me well and I just fell in love with the place. I got married here in 1969. I said, ‘this is great.’”

O’Ree has been a fixture at rink openings, clinics and outreach efforts, especially in Southern California, where hockey was a niche sport with no top-level pro franchises when O’Ree was first getting acclimated.

“I couldn’t imagine in the ’60s how hockey would blossom. But I knew, when Wayne Gretzky came to the Kings, hockey started to flourish,” O’Ree said inside Irvine’s Great Park Ice. “More kids had the opportunity to play, and I could tell then that this was going to be a booming place for these kids to play as they built more of these facilities.”

In addition to that transformation in Southern California, O’Ree has seen players he met as amateurs mature through NHL careers and even enter into management and media, with players like Anson Carter, Kevin Weekes and Subban all assuming prominent roles in broadcasting.

“We all had a dream to play in the NHL and win the Stanley Cup, but throughout my career I’ve realized that I have more responsibility and in a different way than some of those players can realize. More and more are realizing it now. That’s not a burden, that’s not something that you carry on your shoulders, it’s just a responsibility,” Subban said.

“At the end of the day, that’s going to outgrow the game. It brings it back to Willie O’Ree once again, who is such a great people person, someone that anyone can feel comfortable talking to and someone that the whole hockey world has tremendous respect for. I think everything starts with him.”

KINGS AT DUCKS

When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.

Where: Honda Center

TV: Bally Sports SoCal

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