The man who changed hockey

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As the sports calendar flips over to 2019, one of the most inspirational stories from 2018 still has a very recent feel to it.

Four days after being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on Nov. 12, 83-year-old Willie O’Ree returned to his adopted hometown of San Diego to a hero’s welcome.

The American Hockey League San Diego Gulls honored O’Ree, a longtime La Mesa resident, with Willie O’Ree Night at their Nov. 16 game against the visiting Bakersfield Condors.

As the sports calendar flips over to 2019, one of the most inspirational stories from 2018 still has a very recent feel to it.

Four days after being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on Nov. 12, 83-year-old Willie O’Ree returned to his adopted hometown of San Diego to a hero’s welcome.

The American Hockey League San Diego Gulls honored O’Ree, a longtime La Mesa resident, with Willie O’Ree Night at their Nov. 16 game against the visiting Bakersfield Condors.

All fans in attendance received a special Willie O’Ree bobblehead, the first of its kind to honor the first black man to play in the National Hockey League.

It was a truly memorable evening for San Diego County’s hockey icon.

The Gulls faced off the pregame festivities with a 20-minute on-ice pregame ceremony highlighting O’Ree’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame as well as O’Ree’s seven-year playing stint with the original San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League, which occurred from 1967-74 in the same building the current edition of the Gulls occupy.

Video clips, most of them in black and white, introduced fans to O’Ree’s career, from his days with the Quebec Aces, the NHL Boston Bruins’ affiliate in the Quebec Hockey League, to his history-making debut with the Bruins in January 1958 and subsequent playing days in San Diego.

The AHL Gulls presented O’Ree, who attended the event with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, with a custom watch denoting his Hockey Hall of Fame induction and a custom portrait highlighting his seven years with the original Gulls.

At the close of the ceremony, players from both teams took turns shaking hands with O’Ree as did the teams’ respective coaching staffs and on-ice officials.

San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins gave O’Ree a hug.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” O’Ree told the 10,020 fans in attendance. “I have been a San Diego Gull since back when I first came in 1967 and I still think that the finest fans I have had to play for are the ones right here in San Diego.

“I’m glad that I’m alive and be able to be here and still watch hockey games and watch the Gulls play. I think they’re a fantastic team. I honor and have the highest respect for the San Diego Gulls hockey club.”

The Gulls wore throwback WHL Gulls jerseys for the game against the Condors, appropriately rewarding O’Ree with a 4-1 victory.

O’Ree, who has served as the NHL’s diversity ambassador for the Hockey is for Everyone initiative since 1998, logged just 45 games in the NHL, recording four goals and 10 assists. Besides being the first black man to play in the NHL, he also was the first black man to score a goal in the NHL.

Video clips from that era also highlighted reaction of the day to O’Ree breaking hockey’s color barrier, some of which was not supportive.

“Fans would yell, ‘Go back to the South’ and ‘How come you’re not picking cotton?’ Things like that,” O’Ree recalled. “It didn’t bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.”

O’Ree played in more than 1,000 professional games, albeit mostly in the minor leagues. He played 13 seasons in the WHL, appearing in 785 games with 328 goals, 311 assists and 639 points in six seasons with the Los Angeles Blades (1961-67) and the Gulls (1967-74).

He scored 30 or more goals four times during his 13 years in the WHL, recording 38 goals twice to lead the league: the first time in 1964-65 with the Blades and then in 1968-69 with the Gulls.

His best season with the Gulls came in 1968-69 when he tallied 79 points in 70 games.

He joined the Gulls for the 1967-68 season at age 32. In 407 regular season games with the WHL team, he scored 153 goals and accumulated 314 points to become one of the original Gulls’ most popular players.

The ageless O’Ree closed out his pro career at age 43 with the San Diego Hawks of the Pacific Hockey League, recording 21 goals and 46 points in 53 games.

His legacy continues to paint the present-day landscape in pro hockey.

“It’s a humbling experience for me personally and I know our staff and players feel the same,” Eakins said in regard to the pre-game ceremony. “It’s such a privilege to have Willie around. He’s always around and always available. He’s such akind soul. I think he’s just a great example of a human being we should all aspire to be.”

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. During his travels across North America, O’Ree has helped introduce more than 120,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds to unique hockey experiences.

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