William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past nine years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the sport. Today, he profiles the Willie O’Ree Academy, a program created by the Pittsburgh Penguins to help experienced Black youth hockey players.
PITTSBURGH — Robert Burton Jr. finished the final scrimmage of the summer session of the Willie O’Ree Academy with three goals, three assists and a smile on his face from having experienced something unique in his young playing career.
The 16-year-old forward is a member of two teams in the Pittsburgh area.
“I’ve actually never even seen any other Black kids at rinks before, so seeing this many and playing with them is super cool,” Burton said. “To see and be able to play and share my experiences with them is really neat.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins established the O’Ree academy, which is free and named in honor of the NHL’s first Black player. It provides experienced Black youth hockey players in the region training and support in a safe space with hopes of allowing them to bond and develop into elite players capable of someday playing in college, juniors, or even the NHL.
The academy, in partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods, completed its inaugural nine-week session last Tuesday with the free-wheeling scrimmage at the Penguins’ UMPC Lemieux Sports Complex and words of wisdom to players and their parents from Rico Phillips, the founder of Michigan’s Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey Program and the recipient of the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award in 2019.
O’Ree became the NHL’s first Black player Jan. 18, 1958, in a game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum. He played 45 NHL games in two seasons (1957-58, 1960-61), all with the Boston Bruins, and continued to play in the minor leagues until 1979. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 in the Builders category for his off-ice contribution to the sport, including helping to establish 39 grassroots hockey programs in North America as part of the NHL Hockey Is For Everyone initiative.
“It’s huge,” said Burton’s father, Robert Burton Sr. “We’ve been at this since 2007 and when we first got involved, you couldn’t get that many African American kids on the ice at one time no matter how much you advertised. There just weren’t that many involved.
“The first day we came up here and I saw the actual number of kids, I was excited and encouraged because I think the sport of hockey is awesome and it should be more available to kids of color and less affluent families.”
Thirty-one players ages 10-18 participated in the academy, mostly from the Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League (PAHL) and the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League (PIHL). They participated in on- and off-ice training sessions during the week and enjoyed special guest instructors, including Penguins defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph and former defenseman Trevor Daley, who was named a Penguins hockey operations adviser in Oct. 2020 after playing 1,058 NHL games over 16 seasons with the Penguins, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks.
After their workouts, the players listened to speeches from guests like Phillips and Eustace King, who is one of the few Black agents representing NHL players.
Phillips, who is also director for cultural diversity and inclusion for the Ontario Hockey League, said his chat addressed the sometimes-lonely path that Black players travel in hockey and how to deal with racist encounters.
“What I’m trying to express to them is how to have tools in the toolbox to cope with the potential of being the only person of color on teams, the only person of color being called racial slurs, what that feels like, from my own experience, and what it feels like from their own experiences,” he said. “That what kind of today was about, to set kids in motion with confidence and pride so that they can cope with any situation, whether it’s on the ice or off.”
The sessions also provided bonding opportunities for the parents who often find themselves the lone or one of a few parents of color in the stands at their children’s games.
Clarissa Hunter’s 13-year-old son, Christian, plays for North Catholic Middle School and another team in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania.
“It’s been really refreshing just to have someone with something in common with me,” Hunter said. “Where he plays hockey, he’s typically been the only person of color.”
Jim Britt, executive director of the Penguins Foundation, said the academy is working to make the ties among its participating players and parents even stronger.
“We’re going to bring them to a Penguins game to help keep building these friendships and relationships,” Britt said. “All of them have a social support network now. We’ve distributed directories so they’re all in touch with each other. Parents have been hanging out all summer, while the kids are on the ice, parents have been making friends too. So now, as they go back into the hockey world throughout our region, they’re running into each other at the rink, they have resources, they have support and friends and people who are in the same shoes as them.”
Britt and Penguins officials are preparing for the fall session of the O’Ree academy and beyond. A key component to the academy’s success is the proposed seasonal rink inside the Hunt Armory in Pittsburgh’s diverse Shadyside section, which would help make hockey more accessible to youth players of color in the city and its surrounding neighborhoods.
The Penguins announced plans to open a rink in 46,500 square foot armory by Thanksgiving that would be the only indoor ice surface within Pittsburgh’s city limits beyond PPG Paints Arena. The rink would operate from November to March and house the Penguins’ Hockey Diversity Program and a middle school hockey training academy. The costs of the installation and operation of the rink would be supported by the Penguins.
“The Willie O’Ree Academy is about embracing kids who have found hockey,” Britt said. “The Armory is going to help us build the next classes of the O’Ree Academy. It’s the perfect solution as we try to bring the game to a broader audience.”
The NHL and NHL Players’ Association, through their joint Industry Growth Fund, awarded the Penguins a grant in July to support the team’s outreach efforts.