The Boston Bruins had a notion to honour Willie O’Ree last year, but a pandemic got in the way. And so it’s tonight that the team will retire the hockey pioneer’s number, which works out well enough, despite the delay: it was, after all, on a Saturday night 64 years ago to the day that O’Ree made his NHL debut, becoming the first Black player to skate in the league.
The Fredericton-born O’Ree was playing for the Quebec Aces that season when the Bruins summoned him to Montreal to fill in for an indisposed Leo Labine. On January 18, 1958, a 22-year-old O’Ree played his first game at the Forum, aiding in Boston’s 3-0 win. The next day, back in Boston, he skated as the two teams played again. Montreal won that one, 6-2. Playing on a line with Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini, O’Ree didn’t see much ice-time in either game. By the Boston Globe’s calculation, he had one good scoring chance in each one, only to be stymied by Canadiens’ stymier Jacques Plante.
A sweater note: O’Ree wore number 18 for his initial weekend in the NHL. He took up 22 when he returned to the Bruins’ line-up in the fall of 1960. O’Ree scored his first NHL goal, against Montreal, in January of 1961.
O’Ree, who’s 86 now and lives in San Diego, will attend tonight’s ceremony at the TDGarden virtually, as they say, because … pandemic, still. His number is the 12th to be honoured by the Bruins, joining those worn by Lionel Hitchman, Eddie Shore, Dit Clapper, Bobby Orr, Milt Schmidt, Phil Esposito, Cam Neely, Johnny Bucyk, Rick Middleton, Terry O’Reilly, and Ray Bourque.
Also this week: the U.S. House of Representatives has a bill ready to be voted that will award O’Ree the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest U.S. civilian honour. Once it’s passed by the House, the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act will make its way to the White House for President Joe Biden to sign.