New Brunswick

Friends and fans push Willie O'Ree for Hockey Hall of Fame

A group of Fredericton residents is working hard to have Willie O'Ree inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame 60 years after he broke the colour barrier in the National Hockey League.

Letters of support can be accepted until March 9 for submission

National Hockey League diversity ambassador Willie O'Ree, the first black player in the NHL, was honoured during a ceremony in Boston on the 60th anniversary of his first game in the NHL. (Barry Chin/The Associated Press)

A group of Fredericton residents is working hard to get Willie O'Ree into the Hockey Hall of Fame 60 years after he broke the colour barrier in the National Hockey League. 

O'Ree, now 82, became the first black hockey player on an NHL team when he played his first game with the Boston Bruins 61 years ago.

Brenda Sansom has known O'Ree for about 25 years in friendship developed over cups of coffee in a local gathering spot. She said she and many others want to see him inducted into the Hall of Fame. 

"On the occasion of the 60th year, they had a wonderful celebration in Boston," said Sansom, adding that stories and columns published at the time and after led to the push to get O'Ree inducted. 

So far, the group has gathered 50 letters of support, including one from Karl Subban, father of P.K. Subban, the Nashville Predators defenceman.

"The bulk of our submission is coming along nicely," said Sansom. 

Citizen submission

Sansom said the strategy to get O'Ree into the Hockey Hall of Fame is to reach people at high levels of hockey but also people in the community who can speak about the impact O'Ree had on not only hockey, but the community as a whole. 

She doesn't know why O'Ree isn't in the Hall of Fame already but said the support for a citizens submission to make it happen has been overwhelming. 

In this Nov. 23, 1960, photo, 25-year-old left-winger Willie O'Ree poses for a photo as he warms up in his Boston Bruins uniform. (The Associated Press)

Those who want to be a part of the citizen submission can sign a letter that will be available at Fredericton City Hall on Monday.

"There's a sense of pride and a sense of ownership in Willie, so why is he not there? Don't know. We're going to fix it. That's what we said to Willie." 

O'Ree's response to the efforts to get him into the Hall of Fame was, "Oh, well, that would be nice," Sansom said.

"He said, 'But it would be as a builder because you know I wasn't much of a player,' and, I said 'You know, Willie, we need to make that happen.'" 

O'Ree only played two games with Boston before being sent to the minors, but he returned to the NHL in the 1960-61 season, scoring four goals with 10 assists in 43 games before being traded to Montreal. He spent a total of 21 years in pro hockey.

For the past two decades, O'Ree has served as the NHL's diversity ambassador, spreading the message that hockey is for everyone.

Sansom said O'Ree is a builder leading the way for other black hockey players to play in the NHL. 

The citizen submission will be sent on March 12, and Sansom said letters of support can be accepted until March 9.