Willie O'Ree's number retired by Boston Bruins
Fredericton-born O'Ree was the first Black player in the National Hockey League
New Brunswick hockey legend Willie O'Ree was honoured Tuesday evening when his number was retired by the team with which he made history.
Jersey No. 22 was retired by the Boston Bruins during a ceremony at TD Garden before the team's game against the Carolina Hurricanes. O'Ree's number was supposed to be retired at a ceremony in February of last year, but it was postponed due to COVID-19 attendance restrictions at the time.
"This is an unforgettable day. I am overwhelmed and thrilled to be a part of the Bruins forever," O'Ree said in a video message. The 86-year-old attended the ceremony virtually from his home in San Diego because of the pandemic.
Fluto Shinzawa, a senior writer at The Athletic who covers the Bruins, said the honour is a long time coming for O'Ree.
"Talk about how courageous you have to be to play hockey in general — well, you amplify that by 100 in Willie's circumstance," said Shinzawa.
WATCH l Boston Bruins retire Willie O'Ree's number:
Hockey's colour barrier
The Fredericton-born winger became the first Black hockey player to play in the NHL when he entered a game on Jan. 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens.
O'Ree would go on to play 45 games for the Bruins over two seasons, scoring four goals and 10 assists.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.
O'Ree is only the 12th player in Bruins history to have his sweater number retired, joining the likes of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Ray Bourque.
While his story is well known in his home province, Shinzawa admits O'Ree isn't as familiar to people as Jackie Robinson, the first Black major league baseball player in the modern era.
Part of that may be because of O'Ree's relatively short time in the big leagues, Shinzawa said.
But he said he also thinks hockey hasn't done as much as other sports to provide a welcoming space for players of colour — and that plays a part in the under-appreciation of O'Ree's legacy.
"Hockey has not progressed to the point that these other sports have in terms of greater integration," said Shinzawa.
"Just in talking to Black families around here in Boston … it can be an intimidating thing to go into a hockey rink. It's unfamiliar to a lot of families and a lot of players."
New Brunswick fans make the trip
Although O'Ree wasn't at the rink tonight, some New Brunswick hockey fans still decided to make the trip to Boston.
In order to attend Tuesday's game, Kevin Johnson drove through a powerful winter storm that hit the northeast Monday.
"We were down to [driving] 25 km/h — I think we could've walked faster," he said.
Speaking before the ceremony, Johnson said the thought of what it would be like being in the arena gave him goosebumps.
"It's just awesome to be here to be part of it," said Johnson.
"To be here to see his name being recognized for what he's done, and what he stands for, and the opportunities that he's given everybody to play hockey and for equality — it's just awesome."
Shinzawa was also in attendance on Tuesday evening. He said the honour for O'Ree is well deserved, given all he's done to serve the game and in being a role model for Black players.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
With files from Information Morning Fredericton