Fredericton hero Willie O’Ree added to his inspiring story 60 years after he became the first Black player in the National Hockey League.
The Boston Bruins, O’Ree’s former team, announced O’Ree’s number 22 would be retired by the organization, meaning no other Bruin will wear 22 on their jersey. O’Ree, 85, becomes the 12th Bruin in the history of the franchise to have his number retired. He laced up his skates for the Bruins for the first time on Jan. 18, 1958.
Fredericton Red Wings player Sam Campbell, 18, said as a Black hockey player, O’Ree inspired him to keep pushing. Campbell was adopted from Haiti and came to Fredericton in 2005. Being in Canada, he said it was hard not to develop an interest in hockey and started playing when he was six or seven years old. When he started playing, his parents started giving him information on Black hockey players, including O’Ree.
“[O’Ree] is one of those guys everyone should know about,” Campbell said. “He’s inspired me to become a better player and be a good person in this community.”
Campbell has had plenty of opportunities to play in the Willie O’Ree Place, the arena named after O’Ree on the northside of Fredericton, making it more special to him. He met O’Ree when he was younger, though he said he was too young to remember his encounter with him.
Still, Campbell knows O’Ree has helped many of his friends and other Black players pursuing their NHL dreams. Campbell said Quinton Byfield, who was inspired by O’Ree as well, was another inspiration. Byfield was drafted second overall by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2020 NHL entry draft, making him the highest-drafted Black player in NHL history. Previously it was Evander Kane and Seth Jones, going fourth overall in 2009 and 2013, respectively.
“He knows who O’Ree is, he’s been inspired by him. We’re seeing more and more Black players going higher in the league and just keep wanting to play,” Campbell said.
Mike Eagles, St. Thomas University athletics director, said O’Ree has been an incredibly important part of hockey’s increase in diversity.
“I can’t say enough about him as a person and as an ambassador,” Eagles said.
Eagles learned about O’Ree’s story when he was younger and attended hockey school in his hometown, Sussex. His connection with Bill Riley, the third Black person to play in the NHL, and other pros working for the school, helped him and his teammates learn O’Ree’s story. But once Eagles made the NHL, he said O’Ree’s accomplishments and story were common knowledge around the league.
He said he was blessed to meet O’Ree and spend time with him. Eagles recalled the time O’Ree took time out of his busy schedule to attend the funeral of his wife in 2018.
“I was truly humbled by his thoughtfulness. This is just an example of the amazing person he is.”
In 45 career NHL games, O’Ree scored four goals and tallied 10 assists for 14 total career points. The Bruins will hold a ceremony prior to their game on Feb. 12 against the New Jersey Devils.