The San Diego Gulls Friday night will honor Willie O’Ree, a Canadian who played seven seasons with the original Gulls after becoming the first black to play in the NHL.
The team will unveil an American Hockey League-themed O’Ree banner in the Valley View Casino Center’s rafters during the first period intermission in the game against the Bakersfield Condors.
Grant Fuhr, the first black in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and NHL Vice President of Community Affairs Ken Martin are scheduled to attend the ceremony, which comes one day after O’Ree’s 80th birthday.
“There is no better way to celebrate an 80th birthday than with the great hockey fans of San Diego and the Gulls organization,” O’Ree said. “I feel privileged and grateful that the new Gulls organization has extended its hand and chosen to honor me.”
At O’Ree’s request, the team will continue to issue O’Ree’s number 20. It is worn by 19-year-old left wing Nick Ritchie, the Gulls youngest player, who scored two goals in Saturday’s season-opening 4-2 victory over the Grand Rapids Griffins.
“I have told Gulls management and players that nothing would make me happier than to have current and future Gulls continue to wear number 20, the number I wore while with the Gulls,” O’Ree said.
“I am excited that you fans will get to see the great number 20 both on the ice and in the rafters this year and for years to come.”
Fans will receive an O’Ree rally towel upon entering the arena.
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.
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.
O’Ree 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 being 95 percent blind in his right eye as a result of being hit in the eye by a deflected puck before he entered the NHL. He 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 NHL scorer.
Following his playing career, O’Ree was security director at the Coronado Hotel.
In 1998, O’Ree became the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and an ambassador for NHL Diversity. He has aided in introducing hockey to more than 40,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds, and has established nearly 40 local grassroots hockey programs throughout North America.
O’Ree’s many honors include the Order of Canada, his native country’s second greatest 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.
“Willie is a trailblazer and international sports icon,” Gulls President of Business Operations Ari Segal said.
“While he courageously broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958, he’s worked tirelessly throughout his life to promote diversity in our sport, and increase access to hockey for people of all races, ethnicities and socio- economic backgrounds.”
—City News Service