The Boston Bruins will retire the #22 jersey of Willie O’Ree, the National Hockey League’s (NHL) first Black player, before the team’s Feb. 18 home game against the New Jersey Devils.
O’Ree, who played his NHL debut playing for the Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, will become the 12th player in team history to have his jersey hung in TD Garden. Despite being blind in one eye, O’Ree played two seasons for the Bruins, netting four goals – including the first by a Black player – and 10 assists in his 45-game career. He played 14 seasons in the NHL’s minor leagues before retiring from professional hockey in 1979.
“I was at a loss for words there for a few seconds,” O’Ree, 85, told the Associated Press after receiving a call from Bruins president Cam Neely on Jan. 11. “I’m overwhelmed and thrilled about having my Bruins jersey hung up in the rafters.”
With COVID-19 restrictions in place for the upcoming NHL season, which begins tonight, the Bruins will host the jersey retirement ceremony with few, if any, fans at TD Garden; however, the team will honour O’Ree once again – with fans in attendance – once the pandemic restrictions are lifted.
2020 BLACK HISTORY MONTH COIN
O’Ree’s groundbreaking hockey legacy was celebrated on the Royal Canadian Mint’s 2020 Black History Month coin, which was issued on Feb. 4 of that year.
The coin’s reverse design features O’Ree’s engraved player portrait alongside his signature and jersey number. Also on the reverse, the Bruins logo forms a repeating field pattern.
The $20 Fine silver coin had a mintage of 5,500.
Born in 1935 in Fredericton, N.B., O’Ree made sports history as he donned a Bruins jersey and stepped onto the ice of the Montreal Forum in early 1958.
“I am humbled and beyond grateful to have my image displayed on the Canadian silver coin,” O’Ree said last year.
Called up as a short-term replacement at the time of his historic 1958 NHL debut, O’Ree played another game that season plus 43 games in 1960-61.
O’Ree’s first NHL goal – and the first by a Black player – was a game-winner, helping his Bruins defeat the visiting Montréal Canadiens on New Year’s Day in 1961 by a score of 3-2. It earned O’Ree a standing ovation from the crowd.
O’Ree returned to the NHL in 1998 as a diversity ambassador, a role he continues to serve in today. He inspired the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award and received both the Order of Canada and Order of New Brunswick. His 2018 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame recognizes his far-reaching impact on the game.
“Diversity and inclusiveness are cherished Canadian values, and it is wonderful to see them come to life every time kids and adults of all backgrounds band together to play Canada’s game,” Mint President and CEO Marie Lemay said last year. “Willie O’Ree’s courageous determination to play at the highest level of professional hockey inspired generations of black players to carve their own paths as NHL legends. ”
O’Ree has also helped to establish nearly 40 grassroots hockey programs in North America as part of the Hockey is for Everyone initiative.
His life story is detailed in Willie, an award-winning documentary released in 2019.