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O’Ree scores in NHL’s effort to diversify hockey

By Nicole Auerbach
Globe Correspondent / June 28, 2011

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Willie O’Ree may be known as the Jackie Robinson of hockey in some places, but in Boston, he needs no comparison.

The Sports Museum will honor O’Ree and other Boston sports legends at the 10th celebration of The Tradition, tonight at TD Garden. It’s another night of remembrance and celebration for the former Bruin, who has been honored countless times for his contributions to hockey and society.

The event’s other honorees include Larry Bird, Micky Ward, Bobbi Gibb, Ty Law, and Mike Lowell. O’Ree, 75, will receive the Hockey Legacy Award.

O’Ree skated his way into history Jan. 18, 1958 as the first black player in the National Hockey League. He helped the Bruins defeat the Canadiens, 3-0.

He said he didn’t realize he broke the color barrier until the next day, when he read it in the newspaper.

After the Canadian-born O’Ree played in two games that season, he came back to the Bruins during the 1960-61 season, scoring four goals and adding 10 assists in 43 games.

During his NHL career, O’Ree faced hostile environments and racial slurs in some cities, but never Boston, he said. Some players picked fights with O’Ree.

“I fought because I had to, not because I wanted to,’’ he said. “Guys just wanted to see what I was made of. I always tried to protect myself.’’

O’Ree played professionally for 21 years despite racial tensions and blindness in his right eye, the result of a slap shot he took during his years in juniors.

In more than one way, O’Ree is the epitome of the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone’’ initiative. He can relate to minorities as well as disabled players, inspiring them with his against-all-odds story. And that’s a big reason why he’s become the ambassador of that program.

In 1998, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman appointed O’Ree director of youth development for the diversity program. The fledgling program was just three years old and ran five or six organizations around the nation, O’Ree said.

Now, more than 30 not-for-profit programs operate mostly in inner-city environments. These programs provide children with a safe place to hang out and the chance to learn to play hockey.

O’Ree travels the country to visit the programs. He also hosts clinics on and off the ice, makes personal appearances, signs autographs, and speaks at schools.

“When Willie comes to visit the program, he’s right out on the ice with the kids,’’ said Neal Henderson, who runs the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club in Washington. “The kids enjoy being with him. They know [his] history.’’

“I’m encouraging more boys and girls to stay in school and get their education,’’ O’Ree said. “And [I tell them], there is another sport that they can play if they want to. We make it affordable.’’

High costs are generally the biggest obstacles for youth hockey growth. Because programs like Henderson’s are entirely volunteer-run and donation-based, some receive help from USA Hockey and the NHL. Henderson and his coaches also organize fund-raisers.

The availability of youth programs has helped diversify hockey throughout the country, and changes in the NHL are starting to reflect that.

In 2003, the Tampa Bay Lightning selected Gerald Coleman, making him the first NHL diversity program graduate to be drafted by an NHL team. Coleman was a part of the Chicago program.

During the 2001-02 season, another milestone was reached in black hockey history. The Flames’ Jarome Iginla led the league in goals and points and was voted MVP by players. He also became the NHL’s first black captain in 2003.

Anson Carter played for the Bruins in the late 1990s. Last year, the Thrashers had five black players on the roster, the most since the 2000-01 Oilers.

When African-American and African-Canadian players become stars in the league, young kids see them on television and want to emulate them. Or at the very least, the sport gains new fans, Henderson said.

Fifty-three years after O’Ree broke the color barrier, the Vancouver Sun estimated this year that more than 20 black players are on NHL rosters. Despite the fact that it’s less than 5 percent of the league, it is an all-time high.

“I definitely see the opportunity for African-Canadians and African-Americans to become involved in the National Hockey League from a players’ standpoint,’’ Henderson said. “But one of the things that has to happen that hasn’t happened is the cities and states where ice hockey is being played can make it affordable for the inner-city youth to be able to play.’’

The NHL diversity program aims to do that, and attaching a big name like O’Ree’s to the effort only helps.

“He’s a very good representative for youth development for the NHL,’’ Henderson said.

The Tradition
What:
A night to honor Boston sports legends.
When: Tonight, 5:30
Where: TD Garden.
Tickets: $200 and $300, at TD Garden box office, Ticketmaster outlets, or www.sportsmuseum.org.

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