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Willie O’Ree, the first black hockey player in the NHL, tabbed for Hockey Hall of Fame

O’Ree will go in as a builder and join Grant Fuhr as only the second black NHL player to be inducted into the Hall

On one hand, Willie O’Ree wanted to break down and cry. On the other hand, he was smiling. When he received the call from two members of the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee Tuesday morning that he received the votes to enter the Hall, he felt a wave of emotions come over him.

Then he literally felt the weight of all the people who had supported his bid to be inducted. The first call he got was from members of his hometown in Fredericton, New Brunswick. After that he couldn’t keep up as the number of calls and voicemails swelled past a number he could get back to in time. No worries, he’s going to thank every person who has reached out to him personally, because he’s trying to enjoy every second of this moment with the people who have been in his corner supporting him.

Sixty years ago, O’Ree broke the color barrier in the NHL when he suited up for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958, at the Montreal Forum. That made hockey the last of the major four sports to integrate.

On Tuesday, O’Ree became only the third black player chosen for the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining 2003 inductee Grant Fuhr and 2010 inductee Angela James. While Fuhr was inducted as a player, O’Ree’s inclusion is based on the work he’s done after his 45 games (two in 1958 and 43 during the 1960-61 season) in the league. O’Ree totaled four goals and 10 assists for 14 points in his career, but over the past 20 years, O’Ree has been responsible for motivating and inspiring hundreds of black players to join the sport.

“It was just a wonderful feeling,” O’Ree said. “This year has been so wonderful. First of all, my 60th anniversary in Boston with [NHL] Commissioner Gary Bettman and [Boston] mayor Marty Walsh and they had an event in my honor. And then they came up with this new award – the Willie O’Ree Community Service Award – that this is the first year and I presented that in Las Vegas at the [NHL] Awards. And then now getting the news that I’m being inducted into the Hall of Fame is just absolutely wonderful. There’s just so many good things that have happened this year that I’m just thrilled.”

To enter the Hall of Fame as a builder, the 82-year-old O’Ree had to do so through “coaching, managerial or executive ability, or ability in another significant off-ice role, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general.”

As O’Ree acknowledged, he had a brief stint on the ice, but he’s spent the past 20 years as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador and building the league’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative, which tackles diversifying the sport. But besides getting more kids of color into hockey, O’Ree has inspired and continues to inspire generations of black hockey players.

After the April 15 deadline to submit nominees, the Class of 2018 was announced Tuesday after the vote during the NHL’s election meetings. The class will be inducted in November.

Before the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee concluded its process for the Class of 2018, Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds penned a note about how O’Ree made it possible for players like him to even dream of having an NHL career.

“Without Willie,” Simmonds wrote in his Players’ Tribune tribute, “there would be no Jarome Iginla. There would be no Grant Fuhr, or P.K. Subban or Ray Emery or Dustin Byfuglien or so many others who have had the honor of playing in this great league. There would definitely be no Wayne Simmonds. … I used to think about Willie’s story whenever teachers or hockey parents or coaches would laugh at my dream of making it to the NHL. There were so many times when it felt like it just wasn’t meant to happen for me.

“And honestly, none of it ever would’ve happened without Mr. O’Ree opening the door — not just for me, but for every black hockey player with a dream. That’s why I’m sharing my story with you today. It’s not the easiest thing for me to talk about, for obvious reasons. But my dream simply does not become a reality without Willie O’Ree. Mr. O’Ree should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame yesterday. I can’t think of anyone who has done more to broaden the appeal of our great sport to new audiences. He’s a living hero to so many of us, and he deserves to be honored as a legend of the game.”

During the 60th anniversary of O’Ree integrating the game, other prominent black hockey players and supporters lent their voice to the debate.

Karl Subban, the father of P.K. Subban (Nashville Predators), Malcolm Subban (Vegas Golden Knights) and Jordan Subban (Los Angeles Kings), sent in a submission letter through an O’Ree Hall induction effort led by Fredericton residents.

“He changed the game and he changed society and he changed minds,” Karl Subban wrote. “He changed hockey, which is now for everyone. Hockey needed him and so does the Hockey Hall of Fame. The time is right.”

Damon Kwame Mason, director of the award-winning Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future black hockey history documentary, continued to be a vocal proponent of O’Ree’s inclusion and pushed even harder with the added coverage that accompanied the six-decade anniversary.

While most of the power rests in the hands of the selection committee, there is an opportunity for members of the public who aren’t players or closely associated with the league to make their voices heard regarding who they believe is deserving of Hall inclusion.

A petition on Change.org was started to advocate for O’Ree’s Hall induction based on his “significant contributions to the game as a pioneer of the sport.”

Fredericton, O’Ree’s hometown, had 13 members of city government pen a letter to the Hockey Hall of Fame on O’Ree’s behalf, and Matt DeCourcey, a Fredericton member of Parliament, gave a speech on the floor in February in the House of Commons calling for the Hall to induct O’Ree.

“A member of the New Brunswick Hall of Fame (and) the Order of Canada, there remains but one honor to be bestowed this person who left such an indelible mark on this sport,” DeCourcey said. “Mr. Speaker, for his dedication as a builder, I am sure Frederictonians, New Brunswickers, Canadians and hockey fans around the world share the view that it is past time that Willie O’Ree be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.”

Asked if there’s any aspect of his selection he would change, O’Ree chuckled.

“I would keep it the way it is,” he said. “It just seems that 2018, there were so many wonderful things happening with me, and some of the awards that I’ve received. Now, getting the word from the committee in Toronto and letting me know I’ve been inducted into the Hall of Fame. I just think the timing was right, and I’m so very pleased that it’s happening at this time, so I can share it with my family and so many wonderful people I’ve met over the years.”

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.