oree-willie-cp-1960

Willie O'Ree made his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958. ((Associated Press))

Willie O'Ree told a crowd of 1,500 gathered in Fredericton Wednesday for the naming of a sports complex in his honour that he has a new goal for the next time he visits his hometown.

"I'm going to make it a point to come back and do some clinics here in this beautiful facility and I'm going to make it a point to bring the Stanley Cup right here to this building. That's my promise," he said to the crowd of about 1,500, which included more than 100 minor hockey players dressed in their jerseys.

About 1,500 people crowded into the newly-named Willie O'Ree Place to honour its namesake, in a gala event that included tributes from the Boston Bruins, the National Hockey League and Hockey Canada.

O'Ree, 72, was born and raised in New Brunswick's capital city before becoming the NHL's first black player in 1958.

Naming the arena after the hockey pioneer was an easy decision, said Fredericton Mayor Brad Woodside, because O'Ree has made the city proud in more ways than one.

"It's what he does today," Woodside said. "Forty-thousand children would never have had the opportunity to be in a facility and play this great game we call hockey."

O'Ree was 22 when he suited up for the Bruins at the Montreal Forum on Jan. 18, 1958, playing alongside greats like Johnny Bucyk and Bronco Horvath, and going up against future Hall of Famers such as Jacques Plante, Jean Beliveau and Doug Harvey.

O'Ree recorded four goals and 10 assists in 45 games over two stints with Boston. He was traded to Montreal but never played for the Canadiens, settling into a long, productive professional career in the old Western Hockey League with teams based in California, where he now resides.

A big week

The Fredericton ceremony was pinnacle of several events during the week that started with city council proclaiming it "Willie O'Ree Week" on Monday and continued with a dinner at the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame on Tuesday night, an event NHL commissioner Gary Bettman attended.

A banner with O'Ree's picture and a logo commemorating the 50th anniversary of his breaking the colour barrier was raised in the arena at the Wednesday gala as a lasting reminder of his contribution to hockey history.

O'Ree told the crowd that he was choked up when he first saw his name in big red letters on the facility that morning.

"I was at a loss for words for the first few moments," O'Ree said. "I'm just thrilled and very honoured."

For the past decade, O'Ree has overseen the NHL Diversity program, which provides affordable hockey opportunities for youth from all backgrounds, often in non-traditional hockey markets.

The recognition of O'Ree's achievements will continue during a tribute by the NHL during all-star weekend in Atlanta on Jan. 26-27.

With files from the Canadian Press