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Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2008 | This weekend the Boston sports world opens its arms to a San Diego legend. They’ll honor him, celebrate him and grant him long overdue recognition.
It’s true. I promise.
That San Diegan, though, won’t be playing in the Chargers-Patriots AFC Championship football game Sunday in Foxboro, Mass., outside of Boston.
He’s Willie O’Ree, who 50 years ago this week broke the color line in professional hockey as the first black player for the Boston Bruins.
The Bruins honor O’Ree — San Diego has been his adopted hometown for 41 years since he arrived to play for the minor league San Diego Gulls — with a ceremony before their game with the New York Rangers Saturday at the Banknorth Garden.
The afternoon game is part of a whirlwind week for O’Ree that begins tonight in his hometown of Fredericton, New Burnswick, a town across the Canadian border from Maine. Fredericton is honoring its famous son by naming a new $16 million community hockey arena for him: “Willie O’Ree Place.”
“I was quite thrilled when they contacted me,” O’Ree said. “Both of these days are a great honor.”
Jan. 18 is the actual date in 1958 when O’Ree took the ice in a Bruins sweater against the Montreal Canadians, but with no game that night, the ceremony is Jan. 19.
O’Ree was a speedy, 22-year-old right winger when he was called up from the minor leagues in the middle of the 1957-58 season.
He only stayed up in hockey’s big leagues for two games, but history was made that night 11 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers and a year before the Boston Red Sox became the last Major League team to integrate with Pumpsie Green.
In the 1960-61 season, O’Ree was called back up by the Bruins and played in 43 games, scoring four goals and 10 assists. That turned out to be the extent of his NHL career, although he kept playing minor league hockey until 1980 at the age of 44.
Not much was made of O’Ree breaking the color line at the time. There were few black players anywhere then and there still aren’t many more now.
In baseball, with a wealth of black talent playing in the Negro Leagues, Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey could argue for human rights and the U.S. Constitution on behalf of Jackie Robinson at the same time he was tapping into a vast talent pool.
But in NHL, there wasn’t a Branch Rickey or a Roy Campanella or Don Newcombe waiting in the wings behind a pioneer.
O’Ree, who learned the game on ice ponds like any other Canadian kid, had to make it to the NHL strictly on ability and hope no one blocked his path, because it wasn’t likely a Branch Rickey would surface to champion his cause.
Although O’Ree’s historic moment identifies him as a Canadian playing for the Bruins, he’s considered himself a San Diegan ever since he joined the Gulls for the 1966-67 season as a Western Hockey League expansion team for the then-new-and-modern Sports Arena.
“I came here and never left,” O’Ree said. “San Diego had great hockey fans. We would draw 9,200 fans a night to the Sports Arena. A lot of fans knew the game, and I loved the community.”
The NHL may have been late to recognize O’Ree, now 72, as a pioneer, but for the past decade he’s worked for the league as the Director of Diversity Programs. He travels a couple of weeks per month to promote the sport.
Another honor in this 50th-anniversary season that awaits O’Ree is on March 4 from the Hall of Champions, my day job. He will be inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame at the 62nd annual Salute to the Champions dinner at the Town and Country Resort.
O’Ree is the second hockey player to enter the San Diego’s Hall of Fame, following Peter McNabb, a former NHL player and the son of the late Max McNabb, who served as the Gulls general manager.
O’Ree said he was playing for the Los Angeles Blades when received a call in 1966 from McNabb and Gulls owner Bob Breitbard, founder of the Hall of Champions, about coming to play for the Gulls. The 1965-66 season was the final year for Blades, who had to make way for the NHL expansion Los Angeles Kings.
“When they called me, I said I’d take a pay cut to come down there,” he said. “Everyone in the Western Hockey League loved coming to San Diego for games. The crowds were big and exciting. Those seven years I spent with Mr. Breitbard and Max were seven of the best years I spent in hockey.”
Four decades later, oddly enough on the weekend the Chargers travel to New England to play the Patriots for the right to advance to the Super Bowl, San Diego shares its adopted hockey legend with Boston.
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send a letter to the editor.