Former San Diego Gulls star Willie O'Ree to enter Hockey Hall of Fame

Former San Diego Gulls star Willie O'Ree to enter Hockey Hall of Fame
Posted at 9:27 AM, Nov 12, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-12 12:27:32-05

SAN DIEGO (CNS) - Willie O'Ree, who played seven seasons with the original San Diego Gulls after becoming the first African-American man to play in the NHL, will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame Monday in Toronto.

O'Ree was elected to the hall in June in the Builder Category, along with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, for his work growing the game.

``This honor would not be possible if I had not rejoined the league in 1998,'' O'Ree said.  ``I was given a second wind to give back to the game and I am honored to be recognized.''

Bettman said he was ``particularly honored to be part of a class that includes Willie O'Ree.''

O'Ree became the NHL's diversity ambassador in 1998. He has built and supported more than 30 nonprofit youth hockey programs throughout North America, giving more than 120,000 boys and girls from disadvantaged and marginalized populations the opportunity to play hockey.

Through his actions and his words, O'Ree has created greater opportunity and hope for underrepresented, disadvantaged and marginalized boys and girls. He has inspired generations of people to believe that anything is possible, and has worked tirelessly to reinforce that message in communities across North America.

``Willie has just as much of an impact on hockey as a guy like Wayne Gretzky. I wouldn't be playing in the league if it wasn't for Willie O'Ree,'' said Nashville Predators defeseman P.K. Subban, the recipient of the Norris Trophy in the 2012-13 season as the NHL's top defenseman.

An O'Ree banner has hung in the Valley View Casino Center's rafters since Oct. 16, 2015, six days after the Gulls first game in the American Hockey League.

The Gulls will honor O'Ree's induction at Friday's game against the Bakersfield Condors with fans receiving O'Ree bobbleheads while supplies last. ​​​​

O'Ree, who continues to live in the San Diego area, will address the crowd.

O'Ree was born on Oct. 15, 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, as the youngest of 13 children.

``When I went to Quebec (Frontenacs of the Quebec Junior Hockey League) the first year (1954-55), Phil Watson was the coach,'' O'Ree said. ``He said, `Willie, you know there are no black players in the NHL. You could be the first. You have the skills, you have the ability.

``When I went to Kitchener (in 1955-56), (coach) Jack Stewart told me the same thing. When I turned pro with the Quebec Aces (in 1956-57), (general manager) Punch Imlach told me the same thing. It started to register with me. That gave me the extra confidence I needed.''

O'Ree made his NHL debut on Jan. 18, 1958, in the Boston Bruins' 3-0 victory at Montreal. O'Ree played one more game with Boston that season, then returned to Quebec Hockey League's Quebec Aces.

O'Ree played 43 games with the Bruins in the 1960-61 season, scoring four goals and having 10 assists in 43 games. O'Ree was traded to the Montreal Canadiens in June 1961, but never played for them.

There would not be another black player in the NHL until 1974 when rookie left wing Mike Marson debuted with the expansion Washington Capitals.

O'Ree was traded on Nov. 10, 1961 to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League, who he played with until they disbanded in 1967 when the NHL expanded to Los Angeles.

He joined the WHL's Gulls for the 1967-68 season, their second. He remained with the Gulls for their final seven seasons, scoring a career high-equaling 38 goals in the 1968-69 season.

O'Ree returned to professional hockey after a three-season absence in 1978 at the age of 43 with the Pacific Hockey League's San Diego Hawks, scoring 21 goals and assisting on 25 others in 53 games.

He played 19 years of professional hockey, despite losing the sight in his right eye as a result of being hit in the eye by a deflected puck while playing junior hockey in 1956.

O'Ree kept his vision problem secret, because if it had been known, it would have ended his playing career.

Alf Pike, who coached O'Ree with the Blades, figured O'Ree was keeping a vision problem secret and switched him to his right wing, and O'Ree blossomed into a top WHL scorer.

Following his playing career, O'Ree was security director at the Coronado Hotel.

O'Ree's many honors include the Order of Canada, his native country's highest civilian honor, and the Lester Patrick Award for outstanding service to hockey in the United States. He is a member of the San Diego Hall of Champions and New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame.