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Willie O'Ree, NHL's first black player, in Ottawa for outdoor classic

When hockey stars lace up for the NHL 100 Classic this weekend in Ottawa, there will be a hockey legend in the crowd.

O'Ree says it would 'mean a lot' if his No. 22 were retired league-wide

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When hockey stars lace up for today's outdoor NHL game in Ottawa, one of the game's legends will be among the crowds of spectators.

It was 59 years ago that Willie O'Ree was called up from the Kitchener Canucks to replace an injured Boston Bruins player.

When he stepped onto the ice, wearing that Bruins jersey, he had butterflies in his stomach — and not just because he was making his NHL debut.

On that January day in 1958, O'Ree became the first black player to appear in an NHL game.

'Being the best you can be'

O'Ree told CBC Radio's All in a Day this week the response from teammates at the beginning of his venture into professional hockey was positive.

But it didn't last long. 

"The racial slurs and the remarks that were directed toward me went in one ear and out the other," he said. 

O'Ree said he persevered with help from his brother, who was also a mentor throughout his career and the driving force that kept him playing. 

"He says if people can't accept you for the individual that you are, then just let it go and concentrate on being the best hockey player you can be."

Former NHL player Willie O'Ree stands for the playing of the national anthem prior to a ceremonial puck drop before a game between the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres at Gila River Arena on February 26, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. O'Ree was the first black player to play in the NHL. (Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

Diversity ambassador

O'Ree is now the NHL's diversity ambassador. As he prepares to mark 60 years since that first foray into the NHL, he told All in a Day host Giacomo Panico how he remembered playing for years with a secret he kept from all but one person. 

During his second season with the Kitchener Canucks, before he was asked to play in the NHL game, he got hit in the face with a puck during a slap shot from an opponent. The puck ricocheted and struck his right eye, breaking his nose and part of his cheek bone, at a time when helmets hadn't yet been introduced. 

"I remember dropping down to the ice. And the next thing [I remember] is being placed in an ambulance and taken to the hospital," he recalled. 

The doctor who treated him told him his retina had been shattered by the impact the loss of vision in one eye meant he'd never be able to play hockey again.

Only 19, O'Ree felt his dreams of becoming a NHL player had been crushed.

Perseverance after injury

Yet 10 days later, he was back on the ice. O'Ree said he'd somehow kept the injury a secret from everyone around him, including his coaches and his parents — except for his sister. 

"I just wanted to play hockey. And I just happened to be black.- Willie O'Ree

For more than 21 years, he kept playing but compensated for his loss of vision by doing right shoulder checks on the ice. 

"I just wanted to play hockey, and I just happened to be black. And I stayed focused on what I wanted to do," he said. 

"When the doctor told me you'll never play hockey again, he didn't know the burning desire was within me. And I just went out and said I can prove this doctor wrong. Which I did."

There have been calls for the NHL to retire his No. 22, much like Major League Baseball did for Jackie Robinson in 1997.

"It would mean a lot to me," O'Ree said.

On Friday night, O'Ree participated in a panel discussion in Ottawa after a screening of the documentary, Soul On Ice: Past, Present & Future with CBC Ottawa host Adrian Harewood.

Black History Ottawa also hosted a commemorative hockey game to honour the Coloured Hockey League at the Barbara Ann Scott Arena. 

With files from CBC Radio's All in a Day