Pioneering hockey player Willie O’Ree will have his jersey retired

Lordinary hockey player Willie O’Ree— the NHL’s first black player — played a transformative role in shaping the sport and will be honored for his contributions in a major way. The 86-year-old pioneer will have his jersey retired by the Boston Bruins, the Denver Channel reported.

O’Ree made his debut for the Boston Bruins in 1958. During his career, which spanned 24 seasons, he had some heartbreaking experiences due to the color of his skin. There were several incidents when unruly fans tried to attack him. Despite these racist encounters, O’Ree continued to compete because he knew his presence on the ice would break down barriers and open doors for black athletes who would follow in his footsteps. “It showed me that I could change things if I tried,” O’Ree wrote in his memoirs Willie: The Groundbreaking Story of the NHL’s First Black Player. “My parents worried that I would get into trouble because of the color, but I thought trouble was already happening because of the color. I wasn’t going to let that stop me.” After retiring, he continued its advocacy for diversity within the sport by leading youth programs that introduced hockey to children from underrepresented groups.

The jersey retirement ceremony is scheduled to take place on January 18; the same day O’Ree crossed the color barrier 64 years ago. He will be the 12th player to have his jersey retired by the Bruins.

News of O’Ree’s jersey retirement comes as efforts to award advanced him with a Congressional Gold Medal. He also comes as the NHL Black Hockey History Tour—a mobile museum that highlights the stories of black hockey’s pioneers—travels to different cities across the country. In 2018, O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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Catherine J. Martinez