New Brunswick

Willie O'Ree named to the Order of Canada

Willie O'Ree, the first black man to play in the National Hockey League, has been named to the Order of Canada.

Willie O'Ree, the first black man to play in the National Hockey League, has been named to the Order of Canada.

The Fredericton-born hockey hero, who broke the league's colour barrier, was named to Canada's highest civilian honour on Tuesday. 

Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean said O'Ree was to be recognized for his "pioneering contributions to the development of professional hockey, and for his tireless dedication to promoting the sport to minority youth in Canada and the United States."

O'Ree was informed a few weeks ago that the nomination was forthcoming, but when it became official on Tuesday, the soft-spoken hockey legend said he was still overwhelmed by the recognition.

"I don't know how they decided on me. I'm very grateful, very thrilled, very honoured and very happy," O'Ree said.

O'Ree is already a member of the Order of New Brunswick. The City of Fredericton has also named a new hockey arena complex after him.

Fredericton Mayor Brad Woodside said O'Ree's induction into the Order of Canada is very deserving.

"I say that because Willie O'Ree is a true gentleman and one that still commitments a great deal of his time as an ambassador with the National Hockey League's underprivileged children's programs," Woodside said.

"It just couldn't happen to a nicer man. He is not only an ambassador for the National Hockey League but an ambassador for Canada and the City of Fredericton."

Greg Byrne, a cabinet minister from the Fredericton area, said he was struck by the outpouring of support that O'Ree received from the city during his most recent visit.

"He has an incredible attachment to Fredericton and Frederictonians have an incredible attachment to him," Byrne said.

"I think it is important that we continue to ensure that all young people are aware of just how significant his accomplishment was. But it is what he does even today.… He spends every day of his life promoting the sport and encouraging young people to participate and helping young people who may not have the means to participate in the sport."

O'Ree was 22 when he pulled on a Boston Bruins jersey on Jan. 18, 1958.

He played for Boston most extensively in the 1960-61 season, scoring his first goal on New Year's Day in 1961. He would record four goals and 10 assists in 45 games with Boston.

He was traded to Montreal but never played for the dominant Canadiens, settling into a long, productive professional career in the old Western Hockey League with teams based in California, where he now resides.

Fredericton is still home: O'Ree

Fredericton's mayor is unfazed that O'Ree now lives most of the year in California.

"We claim Willie O'Ree, so anything that happens with Willie is certainly something that invokes a lot of pride in this community," Woodside said.

"He is a local guy, a Fredericton son."

Although he doesn't necessarily miss the frigid Fredericton winters in Southern California, O'Ree said there is no question where home lies.

"Fredericton will always be home," he said.

Education Minister Kelly Lamrock, who is also from the Fredericton area, said it's important that New Brunswick's youngest generation are reminded of O'Ree's story.

"I think for a good reason it becomes a stranger story for kids because today it is unthinkable for kids the age mine are that there would be an issue that someone would be excluded from a league because of colour," he said.

Lamrock said O'Ree's journey strikes a chord with so many Canadians because it reinforces the ability of people to overcome long odds, defeat stereotypes and does this using hockey as a vehicle to achieve these milestones.

"I think folks in Fredericton respond to his story and we are proud to claim him as one of ours and to think that our community can play a part in an important story, breaking down barriers so kids of all colours can dream big," he said.