NHL players will wear helmet decals in celebration of the 63rd anniversary of Willie O’Ree becoming the first Black player in the League and to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a United States national holiday that honors the late civil rights leader.
The decals feature an image of O’Ree wearing his trademark fedora and the words “Celebrating Equality.” The players will wear the stickers from Jan. 16 until the end of February, which is Black History Month.
The initiative was announced by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday.
The holiday, which falls on Jan. 18 this year, coincides with the anniversary of O’Ree becoming the NHL’s first Black player when he joined the Boston Bruins in 1958 for a game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum.
“When I reminisce back, I say, ‘Oh my goodness, 1958. Time flies,'” O’Ree said. “I’m thrilled, overwhelmed about the stickers.”
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds said it’s a fitting tribute to O’Ree, a trailblazer in the sport.
“To honor Wille, putting on that [decal] is going to be great for everybody,” Simmonds said. “Obviously for Black players like myself, he started the movement for us to even be considered to play in the NHL, and I think that goes for every other player of color in this league. Without Willie, none of this would be possible.”
O’Ree, a forward, played 45 NHL games over two seasons (1957-58, 1960-61), all with the Bruins, despite being blind in his right eye. He enjoyed a lengthy and prolific minor league career, mostly in the old Western Hockey League.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 for his off-ice accomplishments that helped cultivate a new generation of players and fans as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador.
O’Ree helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs in North America as part of the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative and has inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls to play the sport.
His life story on and off the ice is chronicled in “Willie,” an award-winning documentary released in 2019.