SAN DIEGO — Willie O’Ree, who played seven seasons with the original San Diego Gulls after becoming the first black to play in the NHL, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame Monday in Toronto.
“At the age of 14, I set two goals for myself — to play professional hockey and one day play in the National Hockey League,” O’Ree said at the start of his six-minute speech at the induction ceremony at the Hockey Hall of Fame. “.All I wanted was to be a hockey player. All I needed was the opportunity.
“To be here with you tonight is simply overwhelming. There are no words to express how humble and grateful I am to be part of the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
O’Ree was elected to the hall in June in the Builder Category for his work since 1998 as the NHL’s diversity ambassador.
“I travel across North America introducing boys and girls to the game I love,” O’Ree said. “We also focus on life lessons hockey teaches us and most importantly setting goals. My mission is to give them the opportunity like that one I was given.”
O’Ree has built and supported more than 30 nonprofit youth hockey programs throughout North America, giving more than 120,000 boys and girls from disadvantaged and marginalized populations the opportunity to play hockey.
O’Ree made his NHL debut on Jan. 18, 1958, in the Boston Bruins’ 3-0 victory at Montreal.
“When I stepped on the ice with the Bruins it did not dawn on me that I was breaking the color barrier,” O’Ree said in his induction speech.
“That’s how focused I was on making my dream come true. I didn’t realize I had made history until I read it in the paper the next day.”
O’Ree played one more game with Boston that season, then returned to Quebec Hockey League’s Quebec Aces.
O’Ree returned to the Bruins in the 1960-61 season, scoring four goals and assisting on 10 others in 43 games in what would be the end of his NHL career.
O’Ree was traded to the Montreal Canadiens in June 1961, but never played for them. O’Ree was traded on Nov. 10, 1961 to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League, who he played with until they disbanded in 1967 when the NHL expanded to Los Angeles.
O’Ree joined the WHL’s Gulls for the 1967-68 season, their second. He remained with the Gulls for their final seven seasons, scoring a career high- equaling 38 goals in the 1968-69 season.
O’Ree returned to professional hockey after a three-season absence in 1978 at the age of 43 with the Pacific Hockey League’s San Diego Hawks, scoring 21 goals and assisting on 25 others in 53 games.
There would not be another black player in the NHL until 1974 when rookie left wing Mike Marson debuted with the expansion Washington Capitals.
O’Ree’s dreams of playing professional hockey and in the NHL nearly ended in 1956 when he was hit by a puck while playing for the Kitchener Canucks of the Ontario Hockey Association, losing the sight in his right eye.
“The doctor told me I would never play hockey again,” O’Ree said. NHL rules prohibit blind players from playing because of safety reasons. O’Ree kept his vision problem secret.
“I refused to accept that. His words did not discourage me. They fueled me to try harder, to never give up.”
O’Ree was born on Oct. 15, 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, as the youngest of 13 children.
Among those O’Ree thanked for making his career possible was his brother Richard.
“He used to check me so hard tears would come to my eyes,” O’Ree said. “He wanted me to be ready for the pros.”
O’Ree is the third black in the Hockey Hall of Fame following Grant Fuhr, the goaltender on the Edmonton Oilers four Stanley Cup champions in the 1980s, and Angela James, who led Canada to four gold medals in the IIHF World Women’s Championships in the 1990s.
The Gulls will honor O’Ree’s induction at Friday’s game against the Bakersfield Condors with fans receiving O’Ree bobbleheads while supplies last. O’Ree, who continues to live in the San Diego area, will address the crowd.
An O’Ree banner has hung in the Valley View Casino Center’s rafters since Oct. 16, 2015, six days after the Gulls first game in the American Hockey League.