New AHL Gulls franchise to honor local hockey legend Willie O’Ree

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Professional ice hockey makes its return to the San Diego region after a nine-year absence on Saturday, Oct. 10, when the San Diego Gulls face off their inaugural American Hockey League season against the Grand Rapids Griffins at the Valley View Casino Center (Sports Arena).

A large crowd is expected. Game time is 7:05 p.m. 

Professional ice hockey makes its return to the San Diego region after a nine-year absence on Saturday, Oct. 10, when the San Diego Gulls face off their inaugural American Hockey League season against the Grand Rapids Griffins at the Valley View Casino Center (Sports Arena).

A large crowd is expected. Game time is 7:05 p.m. 

The AHL Gulls hope to rekindle the loyalty that area hockey fans had toward the previous Gulls franchise that operated for 11 years at the AA level in the West Coast Hockey League and ECHL. Those Gulls won five Taylor Cup championships during their eight-year run in the WCHL and captured one Brabham Cup regular season points championship during their final three seasons in the ECHL

The newest Gulls franchise is ushering in an exciting new ea. The AHL operates at the AAA level – one step below the premier NHL. The Gulls are an affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks and fans should expect players transitioning between the teams throughout the season.

“It’s going to be exciting for fans in that they might see a guy play for us and the next night see him play against the Kings at the Staples Center,” Gulls GM Bob Ferguson said. 

Have you purchased season tickets yet?

Mr. San Diego Hockey

The previous two Gulls’ franchises (WCHL/ECHL and Western Hockey League) were big on community involvement and the new AHL club has pledged the same. The Gulls will honor legendary adopted San Diegan Willie O’Ree on Friday, Oct. 16, when they host the Bakersfield Condors on Willie O’Ree Night.

O’Ree, who will turn 80 on Oct. 15, made history on Jan. 18, 1958, as the first black player in the NHL. O’Ree played a total of 45 NHL games for the Boston Bruins, including 43 during the 1960-61 season, but earned his place in local lore by playing seven seasons (1967-74) for the original San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League. 

O’Ree became a fan favorite with the Gulls, playing in 447games for the WHL club while scoring 350 points.

O’Ree later came out of retirement at 43 to play one final season of pro hockey with the San Diego Hawks of the Pacific Hockey League when he tallied 46 points in 53 games.

O’Ree, who has been called the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey,” has since served as the director of youth development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force and an ambassador for NHL Diversity, a position he still holds today. In this role, emphasizing commitment, perseverance and teamwork as core values, O’Ree has aided in introducing the sport of hockey to more than 40,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds, and has established nearly 40 local grassroots hockey programs throughout North America.

The longtime La Mesa resident was inducted locally into the San Diego Hall of Champions and Breitbard Hall of Fame in 2008. Also that same year, O’Ree was honored by San Diego State University with an award for outstanding commitment to diversity and cross-cultural understanding

In 2010, O’Ree, a native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, received the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award for a Canadian citizen. He was honored for his contribution both as a hockey pioneer in paving the way for subsequent players of diverse ethnic backgrounds in the NHL and as dedicated youth mentor in both the United States and Canada.

The legendary O’Ree was present at February’s San Diego Hockeyfest when 8,500 fans ringed the arena for the unveiling of the AHL team’s name and logo.

O’Ree, who has repeatedly been recognized for his excellence on and off the playing surface, said he is honored to be honored by the newest San Diego pro hockey team to bear the beloved Gulls moniker.

“I am thrilled to celebrate my 80th birthday with the new San Diego Gulls and hockey fans in San Diego,” O’Ree said. “I’m proud and thankful that the club has chosen to honor me during its inaugural AHL season. This organization has proven time and again its commitment to becoming deeply ingrained in this community, including and beyond the 34 home game dates.”

O’Ree will be honored prior to and during the Oct. 16 game. The ceremony will include the raising of O’Ree’s No. 20 jersey to the arena rafters.

In his 21 pro seasons, including two in the AHL with the Springfield Indians (1957-58) and New Haven Nighthawks (1972-73), he played with only five percent vision in his right eye after being hit with an errant puck two years before his history-making debut with the Bruins.

“Willie is a trailblazer and international sports icon,” explained Gulls President of Business Operations Ari Segal. “While he courageously broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958, he’s worked tirelessly throughout his life to promote diversity in our sport, and increase access to hockey for people of all races, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. We feel fortunate to have the opportunity to honor him and celebrate his life and historic career on the day after his 80th birthday.”

Fans’ hockey love affair with the venerable O’Ree continues to this day.

“Old Gulls fans all remember Willie O’Ree,” noted West Hills High School roller hockey coach Steve Baldwin, whose four sons have played both ice hockey and roller hockey while growing up in Santee. “We remember his speed, his grace, his support for the San Diego hockey community and how he made history by being the first black player to break the color barrier in the NHL. There’s no doubt Willie has had enormous impact on hockey in the USA.” 

A press release was used in the preparation of this story.

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