Gulls to honor Willie O’Ree for Hall of Fame Induction

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Gulls will hold Willie O’Ree Night at Friday evening’s game at Valley View Casino Center, four days after he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame for his role as the NHL’s diversity ambassador.

The team is encouraging fans to be in their seats by 6:55 p.m. for an on-ice ceremony honoring O’Ree, where he will address the crowd.

All fans in attendance will receive O’Ree bobbleheads, the first created of O’Ree, the first black to play in the NHL and a longtime San Diego resident.

The Gulls will wear throwback jerseys for the game against the Bakersfield Condors matching what O’Ree wore when he played for Western Hockey League version of the Gulls from 1967-74.

Select game-worn jerseys will be autographed and available for a silent auction during the game on the concourse at Section 10. A game-worn jersey raffle will begin at 6 p.m. for $10 per ticket and end at the conclusion of the second period.

A select number of game-worn jerseys, in addition to player-worn hats and sweatshirts, will be available via the DASH Auction app. Fans can text DASH to 66866 to download the app. All proceeds raised will benefit the San Diego Gulls Foundation.

The San Diego Gulls Foundation will conduct its second Surprise Puck sale with pucks commemorating O’Ree. Surprise Pucks will be available for $20 at the San Diego Gulls Foundation booth on the concourse at Section 10.

Fans can select pucks at random, with eight surprise pucks including an additional gift, including a private meet and greet with O’Ree during the first intermission.

Five fans will randomly find a special Gull Den ticket in their bobblehead box that can be redeemed at the Section 9 marketing table on the concourse for four lift tickets to Snow Valley Mountain Resort and a pair of tickets to the Dec. 9 “Not So Silent Night” concert at Del Mar Arena.

One grand prize winner will also receive four upgraded seats for Friday’s game.

A limited number of tickets remained available as of late Thursday afternoon, a team official said.

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 in his induction speech. “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.

“Willie has just as much of an impact on hockey as a guy like Wayne Gretzky. I wouldn’t be playing in the league if it wasn’t for Willie O’Ree,” said Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban, the recipient of the Norris Trophy in the 2012-13 season as the NHL’s top defenseman.

O’Ree was born on Oct. 15, 1935, in Fredericton, New Brunswick, as the youngest of 13 children.

“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 “All I wanted was to be a hockey player. All I needed was the opportunity.”

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 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 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. “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 was re- assigned 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. 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 was traded to the Montreal Canadiens in June 1961, but never played for them. O’Ree was traded on Nov. 10, 1961 to the WHL’s Los Angeles Blades.

One of O’Ree’s coaches with the Blades, Alf Pike, figured O’Ree was keeping a vision problem secret and switched him from left wing to right wing, and O’Ree blossomed into a top WHL scorer, leading the league in goals in the 1964-65 season with 38.

O’Ree played with the Blades 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.

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.

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.