Willie O'Ree, Matt Savant, Gulls
Willie O’Ree presented with a commemorative Hall of Fame poster by Gulls president Matt Savant. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Gulls

The San Diego Gulls honored Willie O’Ree before Friday evening’s 4-1 victory over the Bakersfield Condors, four days after he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame for his role as the NHL’s diversity ambassador.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” O’Ree told the crowd of 10,020 at Valley View Casino Center on Willie O’Ree Night. “What an honor and a privilege for me to be here this evening. I’ve been a San Diego Gull since back when I first came in 1967 and I still think that the finest fans I’ve had to play for are the ones right here in San Diego. God bless you. I love you.”

O’Ree was elected to the hall in June in the Builder Category for his work since 1998 as the NHL’s diversity ambassador.

“I travel across North America introducing boys and girls to the game I love,” O’Ree said in his induction speech Monday at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. “We also focus on life lessons hockey teaches us and most importantly setting goals. My mission is to give them the opportunity like that one I was given.”

O’Ree 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.

“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 defenseman P.K. Subban, the recipient of the Norris Trophy in the 2012-13 season as the NHL’s top defenseman.

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

“At the age of 14, I set two goals for myself — to play professional hockey and one day play in the National Hockey League,” O’Ree said “All I wanted was to be a hockey player. All I needed was the opportunity.”

O’Ree’s dreams of playing professional hockey and in the NHL nearly ended in 1956 when he was hit by a puck while playing for the Kitchener Canucks of the Ontario Hockey Association, losing sight in his right eye.

“The doctor told me I would never play hockey again,” O’Ree said. NHL rules prohibit blind players from playing because of safety reasons. O’Ree kept his vision problem secret.

“I refused to accept that. His words did not discourage me. They fueled me to try harder, to never give up.”

O’Ree made his NHL debut on Jan. 18, 1958, in the Boston Bruins’ 3-0 victory at Montreal.

“When I stepped on the ice with the Bruins it did not dawn on me that I was breaking the color barrier,” O’Ree said. “That’s how focused I was on making my dream come true. I didn’t realize I had made history until I read it in the paper the next day.”

O’Ree played one more game with Boston that season then was reassigned to Quebec Hockey League’s Quebec Aces.

O’Ree returned to the Bruins in the 1960-61 season, scoring four goals and assisting on 10 others in 43 games in what would be the end of his NHL career. 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 to the Montreal Canadiens in June 1961, but never played for them. O’Ree was traded on Nov. 10, 1961 to the WHL’s Los Angeles Blades.

One of O’Ree’s coaches with the Blades, Alf Pike, figured O’Ree was keeping a vision problem secret and switched him from left wing to right wing, and O’Ree blossomed into a top WHL scorer, leading the league in goals in the 1964-65 season with 38.

O’Ree played with the Blades 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.

O’Ree is the third black in the Hockey Hall of Fame following Grant Fuhr, the goaltender on the Edmonton Oilers four Stanley Cup champions in the 1980s, and Angela James, who led Canada to four gold medals in the IIHF World Women’s Championships in the 1990s.

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.

Update at 12:35 p.m. on Nov. 17, 2018

–City News Service