La Mesan O’Ree inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame

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Longtime La Mesa resident Willie O’Ree, who played seven seasons for the original San Diego Gulls in the Western Hockey League, has gained hockey immortality after being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The gala induction ceremonies took place on Monday, Nov. 12, at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

The honor is a truly deserving one for the pioneering O’Ree, 83, who earned distinction as the first black man to play in the National Hockey League.

Longtime La Mesa resident Willie O’Ree, who played seven seasons for the original San Diego Gulls in the Western Hockey League, has gained hockey immortality after being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The gala induction ceremonies took place on Monday, Nov. 12, at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

The honor is a truly deserving one for the pioneering O’Ree, 83, who earned distinction as the first black man to play in the National Hockey League.

O’Ree was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builders Category along with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman for their work in helping grow the game.

O’Ree made history on Jan. 18, 1958, when he took the ice for the Boston Bruins in a game in Montreal, breaking the color barrier in the NHL.

He rejoined the NHL in 1998 as the director of youth development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force. Particularly through the league’s Hockey is for Everyone program, O’Ree has helped champion the initiative that has introduced more than 120,000 children of diverse backgrounds to the game and established 36 local grassroots hockey programs geared toward economically disadvantaged youth.

The Hockey is for Everyone initiative uses the game of hockey – and the NHL’s global influence – to drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities.

Earlier this month, a street hockey rink in the Boston neighborhood of Allston, Massachusetts was named in O’Ree’s honor.

In O’Ree’s own words, when opportunity presents itself, the game grows.

Bettman said he is personally honored to be included into the same Hockey Hall of Fame 2018 class as O’Ree.

“Just getting to know him over the 20 years, seeing the way he interacts with young people and the difference that he makes in their lives, was absolutely one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as commissioner,” Bettman, who has overseen the league’s growth from 24 teams to 31 teams and an increase in annual revenue from $400 million to $4 billion during his 25-plus years as commissioner, according to the NHL.com.

O’Ree, who played in more than 1,000 professional hockey games (though almost all of them in the minor leagues), has received the Order of Canada, his native country’s highest civilian honor and the Lester Patrick Award from the NHL for his outstanding service to hockey in the United States. He is a member of the San Diego Hall of Champions and the New Brunswick Hall of Fame.

His induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame may be overdue by some accounts.

After O’Ree made hockey history as the first black man to play in the NHL, another black player would not skate in the NHL again until Canadian Mike Marson suited up for the Washington Capitals in 1974.

There is little question that O’Ree, who has been dubbed the “Jackie Robinson of hockey,” has helped forward change in the game since he played 45 games for the Bruins from 1958 to 1961.

The NHL of that era was confined to just six teams in the northeastern corner of North America. The league’s player pool was almost exclusively Canadian-born, including O’Ree, a native of New Brunswick.

The NHL of today has gone global. Thirty countries can claim players in the NHL.

Since O’Ree’s barrier-shattering debut, 85 other blackmen have played in the NHL. The league boasted 24 black players last season.

P.K. Subban, a defenseman for the 2017 Stanley Cup finalist Nashville Predators and one of the league’s most prominent black players, called O’Ree a role model to any player from a different country or minority background.

Grant Fuhr, a five-time Stanley Cup champion and six-time all-star who was best known for his play with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s and who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, presented O’Ree with his Hall of Fame plaque during Monday’s televised ceremonies.

O’Ree’s acceptance speech was moving.

“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 told the captivated audience. “All I wanted was to be a hockey player. All I needed was the opportunity. To be here tonight is simply overwhelming. There are no words to explain how humble and grateful I am to be part of the Hockey Hall of Fame. I thank the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee for the incredible honor and offer heartfelt congratulations to my fellow inductees.

“Believe it or not, on Jan. 18, 1958, when I stepped on the ice with the Bruins, it did not dawn on me that I was breaking the color barrier. 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. I have spent 67 years of my life in hockey. Now as the NHL’s ambassador, I travel across North America introducing boys and girls to the game I love. We do focus on life lessons. Hockey teaches us, most importantly, (about) setting goals. My mission is to give them the opportunity like the one I was given.

“When I lost the sight in my right eye, playing junior (hockey), the doctor told me I would never play hockey again. I refused to accept that. His words did not discourage me. They fueled me to try harder, to never give up. Three years later I broke the color barrier.”

O’Ree thanked Bettman for his ongoing efforts in helping make the game “more diverse and inclusive each day.”

“True strength comes from diversity and inclusion. It makes kids better, it makes families better, it makes the game better,” O’Ree said.

O’Ree’s election to the Hockey Hall of Fame follows on the ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of his history-making feat earlier this year.

The current edition of the Gulls will honor O’Ree’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame by hosting Willie O’Ree Night on Friday, Nov. 16, at the Valley View Casino Center.

Besides honoring O’Ree, the American Hockey League club will hand out special Willie O’Ree bobbleheads to fans in attendance. Face off is 7 p.m.

The Gulls issued a statement Monday evening congratulating O’Ree, a San Diego County resident since his retirement as an active player in the 1979, on his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“Willie is rightfully honored and takes his place among legendary players and figures of the sport,” the statement read. “His impact on and off the ice has been insurmountable and will leave a lasting legacy. Willie broke the color barrier over 60 years ago on Jan. 18, 1958, and his tireless work to grow the sport of hockey with the National Hockey League for over 20 years has left just as large an impact.”

Because of O’Ree, hockey is truly for everyone.

Next Gen

Elisha Reece, intriguingly, a much younger La Mesan, is following in O’Ree’s trailblazing footpath on the ice.

A freshman on the San Diego State University men’s ice hockey team, Reece bears somewhat of a resemblance to a young O’Ree and, more importantly, possesses many of O’Ree’s famous trademarks.

In referencing the latter, Reece has employed his speed, ability to win crucial face-offs and fearlessness in banging into the corners to emerge as one of the Aztecs’ top scorers in just his first season on the team. He collected a goal and two assists in SDSU’s latest win, a 5-2 decision over Arizona State University last Saturday, Nov. 3, at the Kroc Center that upped the team’s record to 6-4-1.

In 11 games this season, Reece has recorded two goals and five assists for seven points to rank second (to teammate Derian Theberge) among freshmen scorers on the team.

Theberge, Reece and Mickey Sullivan constitute an all-freshman line that looks to be an exciting combination to watch in the coming years. Theberge picked up two goals in last Saturday’s game while Sullivan had an assist.

“There is a lot of diversity on the team, not just different ethnicity, but people from all over the country,” Reece said.

That the 2018-19 Aztec team represents a cross-section of current society owes much to O’Ree through his pioneering efforts 60 years ago as well as by his two decades of more recent service as an ambassador in the NHL’s diversity program.

Reece met O’Ree during the Gulls’ inaugural open house in February 2015.

“It was interesting to talk to someone from a different time and hear his struggles,” Reece said. “It put a lot of things into perspective. For me, there are no excuses. It’s motivation.”

Reece is one of three East County players on this season’s SDSU team.

Fellow freshman Mason Cook, a Lakeside resident and 2018 graduate of Santana High School, collected a goal and two assists in last Saturday’s game. Reece and Cook join junior Isaac Miller, a Helix High School alumnus, on the team.

Cook and Miller have both recorded two goals and three assists this season.

Reece, who attended e3 Civic High School, a public charter secondary located at the San Diego Central Library, started playing ice hockey at the Kroc Center in the third grade after being introduced to the sport through a video game.

“I played the game and got into a hockey fight and begged my parents to play,” Reece said.

Marty Mayer was Reece’s first house league coach at the Kroc Center.

“He would come to the skate and shoots, he was always here,” said Mayer, whose son, Aaron, leads SDSU in scoring with 22 points (nine goals, 13 assists) in nine games.

“I guess I was a bit of a rink rat,” Reece admitted. “My father was an athlete, he played football and baseball, attended SDSU, and always supported me in youth sports.”

As for making the transition from video game player to ice hockey player, well …

“It was a lot harder than I thought,” Reece admitted. “I had to go to games and watch other players and go from there.”

Now younger players are watching him to learn how to play the game.

More recently, Reece played for the Poway Hawks in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League and last season for the San Diego Sabers in the Western States Hockey League, an Amateur Athletic Union-sanctioned junior hockey league.

“There seems to be a lot of dedicated fans here (supporting the Aztecs),” Reece said. “I think our team has a lot of chemistry.”

Cook, who also learned to play hockey at the Kroc Center, earned distinction as the first four-year player to graduate from the Hawks high school club team.

“Every game I was here,” Cook said. “I’d go to the skate and shoot at the Kroc and I’d stay to watch the Aztecs play. I thought it would be amazing someday to play for the Aztecs.”

Now he is.

“I just want to do the little things to help the team win, to make plays to help everyone else,” Cook said. “It’s been an amazing season so far.”

Miller is entering this third year on the SDSU team but has switched roles from center to defenseman.

“It’s just about having more patience,” Miller said. “Be more reliable and not pushing up a lot more.”

The Aztecs appear to be holding their own in their first season in the PAC 8 Conference with a 4-3-0 conference record, including last weekend’s split with ASU. The Sun Devils won last Friday’s match-up by a 5-3 score that included an empty net goal.

Miller picked up an assist in that game.

“I like playing teams from larger schools (in the PAC 8),” Miller said. “They have more recognizable names. They’re interesting to play against and put up a good fight. We just didn’t have the right mind-set in the first game (against ASU).”

SDSU will play the University of Oregon prior to a Gulls game on Jan. 19 at the Valley View Casino Center as part of Aztec Hockey Night. The game is scheduled for a 1 p.m. face-off. Ticket vouchers include the Gulls’ AHL game that evening against the Bakersfield Condors.

SDSU and Oregon will rematch the next afternoon at the Kroc Center.

The Aztecs will face off second semester action with a two-game series Jan. 11-12 at the Kroc Center against the University of Iowa and play at UCLA on Jan. 18.

SDSU will meet Long Beach State University in a non-conference match-up Friday, Nov. 16, at the Poway Ice Arena and conclude first semester play with a two-game series at the University of Washington Nov. 30-Dec. 1.

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