Willie O’Ree will have his No. 22 retired by the Boston Bruins on Feb. 18 to honor him for becoming the first Black player in the NHL 63 years ago.
The number retirement ceremony will be held before the Bruins play the New Jersey Devils at TD Garden.
“On behalf of the Boston Bruins organization I would like to congratulate Willie O’Ree as well as his wife, Deljeet, and his daughter, Chandra, on having his number retired in the TD Garden rafters,” Bruins President Cam Neely said. “Willie’s contributions to the game of hockey transcend on-ice accomplishments and have opened countless doors for players who have come after him. He is without question deserving of this honor.”
Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs said O’Ree’s contributions to the game go well beyond becoming the first Black player in NHL history when he played for Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens at the Forum in Montreal.
“Throughout the history of the National Hockey League, there have been very few individuals that have had such a profound impact on the league and its culture than Willie O’Ree,” Jacobs said. “After breaking the color barrier as a Boston Bruin in 1958 and eventually retiring from professional hockey in 1979, Willie became the ultimate ambassador for improving diversity and inclusion within the game of hockey. The entire hockey world is forever indebted to Willie for all that he has done, and continues to do, for the sport. We are incredibly proud to retire Willie’s number and cement his legacy as one of Boston’s greatest athletes.”
The jersey retirement is one of several honors this season being bestowed upon the 85-year-old from Fredericton, New Brunswick.
NHL players will wear decals on their helmets to commemorate the anniversary of O’Ree’s accomplishment and observe Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 18, a United States national holiday that honors the late civil rights leader.
The decal features an image of O’Ree wearing his trademark fedora and the words “Celebrating Equality.” The players will wear the stickers from Jan. 16 and throughout Black History Month in February.
“I’m thrilled, overwhelmed,” O’Ree said.
Besides O’Ree, 31 other Bruins players have worn No. 22, including Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Brad Park, Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet, Brian Leetch, Butch Goring, Jozef Stumpel and Shawn Thornton. Peter Chelarik, a left wing, wore No. 22 for 40 games last season. Craig Smith, acquired in the offseason by Boston, was originally going to wear No. 22 this season, but he will switch to a different number.
Former NHL player Joel Ward, who recently advocated on a recent episode of the NHL’s “Soul on Ice: The Podcast” that O’Ree’s number be retired, is thrilled by the Bruins’ gesture.
“That’s amazing,” said Ward, who wore Robinson’s 42 because O’Ree’s number wasn’t available during his stints with the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals. “Hats off to the Bruins organization for honoring Willie and what he means to the game and people of color. It will be great for kids to see. To honor a guy who broke barriers is huge.”
O’Ree played 45 NHL games over two seasons (1957-58, 1960-61) with the Bruins despite being blind in his right eye — the result of an injury sustained in junior hockey. He scored 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) during his NHL career.
He enjoyed a lengthy and prolific minor league career, mostly in the old Western Hockey League.
O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 2018 for his off-ice accomplishments that helped cultivate a new generation of players and fans as the NHL’s diversity ambassador.
He helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs in North America as part of the Hockey Is For Everyone initiative and has inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls to play the sport.
O’Ree’s life story on and off the ice is chronicled in “Willie,” an award-winning documentary that was released in 2019.
Due to COVID-19 restricttions, the Bruins said it’s possible the ceremony will take place without fans at TD Garden, but said they believe that it is important to move forward with a virtual pregame ceremony. The Bruins said once protocols allow, they will again honor O’Ree in front of fans.
O’Ree is the 12th player to have his sweater honored by the Bruins, joining Lionel Hitchman (No. 53, 1934), Dit Clapper (No. 5, 1947), Eddie Shore (No. 2, 1949), Milt Schmidt (No. 15, 1957), Bobby Orr (No. 4, 1979), Johnny Bucyk (No. 9, 1980), Phil Esposito (No. 7, 1987), Ray Bourque (No. 77, 2001), Terry O’Reilly (No. 24, 2002) Cam Neely (No. 8, 2004) and Rick Middleton (No. 16, 2018).