'O'Ree week' honours Fredericton hockey legend

The City of Fredericton will officially name its northside arena Willie O'Ree Place on Wednesday night to honour the National Hockey League's first black player.

City's northside arena to be officially renamed Wednesday night

The City of Fredericton will officially name its northside arena Willie O'Ree Place on Wednesday night to honour the National Hockey League's first black player.

In what is being called by some "Willie O'Ree Week," the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame honoured the 72-year-old hockey pioneer in a special ceremony at the Fredericton Inn on Tuesday night. O'Ree was inducted into the hall of fame in 1984.

"You know I broke the colour barrier and made it possible for not only black players but players of colour to get into the league," O'Ree said. "It's a nice feeling to know you're recognized so many years ago."

O'Ree visited the Northside Sports & Leisure Complex — which has already had its new name, Willie O'Ree Place, placed on its side wall in red lettering — on Wednesday morning.

"I was driving up and all of a sudden there's the building and my name stood out. The Willie O'Ree Place. I was at a loss for words," O'Ree told CBC News.

The decision to name the $16-million sports complex after O'Ree wasn't difficult, said Fredericton Mayor Brad Woodside.

"You could feel the community wanted it and supported," Woodside said.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called O'Ree the Jackie Robinson of hockey at the hall of fame's recognition on Tuesday night.

O'Ree grew up in Fredericton and was was just 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.

"It's hard to believe what I'm seeing," said O'Ree's older sister Thelma Mitchell. "We're very proud of him."

O'Ree is what a professional athlete should be, said Danny Grant, another New Brunswick native who has played in the NHL.

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.

"There's no question that you look at statistics and how many goals and how many assists and that's all great. But it's not what sports are all about. It's about the person," Grant said.

"[O'Ree's] the type of man that you expect a professional athlete to be. He was not only good, he had 21 years in the profession, he came out of that and he's working with kids. He's doing all the things we would hope a professional athlete would do."

'Gleam in their eyes'

O'Ree said to him the game is now about the kids and seeing "the gleam in their eyes."

Twelve-year-old hockey player Peter Giggie made his way to the arena to meet O'Ree on Wednesday morning.

"Being black and in the hockey world, I like to look up to him," Giggie told CBC News. "He's definitely my idol."

Giggie asked O'Ree to sign a book and a jersey and it is those kinds of requests that still make all the hard work worth it, said the elderly player. 

"To be honoured even after so many years, to have someone come up and want an autograph — it's meaningful," he said. "I just hope everyone has as much fun playing in this building as I did playing in the York Arena."

O'Ree will also be recognized by the NHL during all-star weekend in Atlanta on Jan. 26-27.