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Willie O’Ree broke NHL’s color barrier, but there’s more work to be done

O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame for his contributions in growing the game

TORONTO — He wore his hat. He referenced Snoop Dogg. He graciously thanked Gary Bettman, whom some could have blamed for stealing his shine — and he made it quick. The famous lid even made it onto the Hall of Fame plaque. On Monday, when Willie O’Ree, the man who broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958, was inducted alongside five others, he became the first black man to do so under the “Builders” category, a designation set for those who helped grow the sport in one way or the other. And not a minute too soon.

O’Ree, 83, beyond his pioneering play for the Boston Bruins decades back, has also been a representative of the sport in a way that few people of any heritage have been over the years. In 1998, the NHL named him the director of youth development. Since then, he’s been an ambassador of the game in a way that many of his counterparts never needed to do.

Jackie Robinson came from the Negro Leagues. There were plenty of black folks playing baseball when he broke into the bigs. If you want to have a separate discussion about how his landing with the Brooklyn Dodgers killed the soul of the game in said league, sure. Same goes for Earl Lloyd, the NBA’s first black player, a member of the Washington Capitols. As for the NFL, it always had at least a couple of brothers in the league, and again, it’s not like there was any particular shortage of Negroes on the gridiron.

But comparatively, the NHL is a different beast. The NBA’s second and third black players — Chuck Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, respectively — came just one day after Lloyd. Larry Doby came later in the same season as Robinson, albeit in the American League. For the NFL, the point is effectively moot, but it should be noted that Washington’s football team took until 1962 to integrate its squad individually, with Bobby Mitchell.

You know how long it took for the second black player to get to the NHL? How about 17 whole years? That’s when Mike Marson, another Canadian, was drafted by the Washington Capitals. Think about that. Think about how long Canadians have been playing hockey, going back to the old maritime leagues where black players in Nova Scotia were skating as far back as the late 1800s. The NHL’s diversity issue was far grander than in other leagues, and O’Ree is the fulcrum of all of it.

Anson Carter, a hockey analyst with NBC Sports, wrote a column for the site and talked on the red carpet before the induction ceremony about how vital it was to get O’Ree in while he was still around to make it to the podium. He went so far as to write a letter to the Hockey Hall of Fame, making his case to get the man who played blind in one eye inducted.

“I thought we had to right a wrong. A big thing as you saw in that piece was when [former coach] Pat Burns died and they honored him after he passed away. That’s one of the biggest things that drove me to write that letter for Willie O’Ree,” said Carter, a 12-year NHL winger. “I want to see him get honored while he’s still here on this earth. That was the big motivating factor, to be honest with you. Because as far as I was concerned, he’s been a Hall of Famer my whole life.”

The Hockey Is For Everyone program, according to the league, is designed to “drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities.” The league runs grassroots initiatives to get kids on the ice, teach them the game and in general take the sport to places where it isn’t usually top of mind.

Damon Kwame Mason, whose documentary Soul On Ice chronicles the history of black hockey beyond the NHL, believes that contribution is ultimately as important as O’Ree breaking the color barrier.

“Being a builder means your contribution to the game, so to go in as a player is not the right fit for him. But for a guy who for the last 30 years has been working with youth all across North America to help new kids play the game of hockey, that’s what we need,” the filmmaker said Monday. “For the NHL and for hockey itself to grow, you have to go into different markets, and that’s what he’s been doing. He’s been going into the markets that, traditionally, people weren’t even thinking there was an interest in the game of hockey. And you’ve got to be able to say that Willie O’Ree has helped put a lot of young black kids, Hispanic kids, young minority kids all on the ice.”

These days, the idea of a black player getting drafted in the first round isn’t foreign, even though many of them aren’t American — that’ll come with time. But, overall, progress is there for sure. And if we’re picking nits, it’s moving at light speed compared with what it was in the nearly two decades between O’Ree’s and Marson’s respective appearances.

“I just could see the development of younger players getting drafted in the first round,” Carter said of the obvious change in demographics of the league. “K’Andre Miller drafted by the New York Rangers, Seth Jones getting drafted by Nashville. Evander Kane getting drafted in the first round as well, by Atlanta. That never happened back then. So that, to me, shows me that there’s enough kids playing at the grassroots level to have an impact at the NHL level.

“You look at it as an iceberg — you gotta make that base a lot bigger. I think that number’s still evolving. I think the next 15 to 20 years, we’re going to see even more black players playing in the league. Because where it was before, compared to where it is now? It’s a whole long ways.”

As for O’Ree himself, everyone knows he’s all class. Including The Great One himself.

“Willie O’Ree has meant so much to our country, and what he’s meant for people that are not as fortunate as others. He’s been positive for the game of hockey,” Wayne Gretzky, arguably the best player in the history of the sport, said Monday. “And he was a guy that could have been upset about the game of hockey, and he’s not. He’s happy about our sport, and he speaks highly of our game. The greatest player that ever lived was Gordie Howe, and I never once heard him say anything negative about the game of hockey. And that’s how Willie O’Ree is.”

The ceremony in Toronto was a perfect pitch from the Hockey Hall of Fame regarding O’Ree. They didn’t overly pat themselves on the back, and for most people, learning that he wasn’t already in the hall didn’t become some point of contention. The old man had his moment, and a well-deserved one at that. But, that said, there’s one thing that still remains true.

There are as many black people in the Hockey Hall of Fame as there are periods in a hockey game.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at Andscape. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B and remixes — in that order.