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Thank You, Willie O’Ree

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January 21, 2022

If you were in Boston on Tuesday night, you may have noticed a golden glow over the city. Mayor Michelle Wu proclaimed January 18, 2022 as Willie O’Ree Day and landmarks including TD Garden, the Prudential Center, City Hall, Gillette Stadium, Fenway Park, and the iconic Zakim Bridge lit up in gold in honour of hockey legend Willie O’Ree.

Willie O’Ree was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick in 1935. He is a direct descendant of a slave who escaped from a plantation in South Carolina and made his way northeast, where he joined the British Army in exchange for freedom and land during the Revolutionary War.

Growing up in Canada, Willie began skating at the age of three, joined a hockey league at the age of five , and developed into one of the best hockey players in New Brunswick. Midway through his second minor-league season with the Quebec Aces, he was called up to play with the Boston Bruins and  became the first black National Hockey League (NHL) player when he debuted in a game against the Montreal Canadiens in 1958.

Fast forward 64 years. Willie O’Ree has made significant contributions to the sport of hockey and continues to inspire generations of young players. His lifelong dedication to dismantling barriers for athletes of color continues to advance NHL diversity efforts, and he has established 39 local grassroots hockey programs across North America to support economically disadvantaged youth.

On January 17-18, 2022, The Carnegie Initiative hosted its inaugural summit on equity, diversity, and inclusion in the game of hockey. Named in honour of legendary hockey player and social justice pioneer Herb Carnegie, the Carnegie Initiative (The CI), was created to ensure opportunity and access to hockey everywhere. With the support of the Consulate General of Canada in Boston, the conference featured a medley of thought-leaders, professional athletes, media outlets, and corporate representatives committed to advancing anti-racism and representation in hockey. At the opening ceremony remarks, Consul General of Canada in Boston, Rodger Cuzner, highlighted the need to push for progress: “We are at a historic moment of reckoning with discrimination and racism in hockey. And in this moment, there’s also a wealth of opportunity – but only if we marshal all voices to continue down the path of real change.”

Consul General Cuzner is no stranger to the persistent barriers in hockey. Prior to serving in Parliament, he coached Team Nova Scotia at the Canada Games in 1995 and 1999. Throughout his tenure in the House of Commons, Cuzner found a number of parallels between life on the hill and at the rink, including how both were eager for deliberate action on diversity and inclusion. Looking back, Consul General Cuzner notes, “From the playing days of Herb Carnegie and Willie O’Ree, a lot of progress has been made. As we reflect on their legacies, however, it’s clear that we need to continue to break down the racial barriers both on and off the ice.”

The summit concluded at TD Garden, home of the Boston Bruins, where the No. 22 jersey of Willie O’Ree, a New Brunswick native and the first Black NHL player, was raised to the rafters and retired. As the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador since 1998, O’Ree continues to travel across North America to promote access and perseverance in various hockey programs. O’Ree is the third NHL player to have his jersey retired in recognition of his social contributions to the game of hockey.

Ambassador Kirsten Hillman had a chance to speak with Willie to congratulate him on the retirement of his jersey. Already admired by many friends and fans, she also reminded him there’s a whole nation of Canadians, especially back home in Fredericton, celebrating Willie O’Ree and this hockey history moment.

Thank you, Willie, for everything you’ve done to grow the game.

Willie O’Ree Honours & Awards

1969 – WHL Second All-Star Team

1984 – New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame

2003 – Lester Patrick Trophy

2005 – Order of New Brunswick

2008 – Willie O’Ree Place Dedication

2008 – Order of Canada

2008 – Breitbard Hall of Fame

2018 – Hockey Hall of Fame

2020/2021 – Canada Sports Hall of Fame

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