Willie O'Ree broke the NHL's color barrier on January 18, 1958 when he suited up for the Boston Bruins in a game against the Montreal Canadiens. Sixty years later, O'Ree has been the subject of numerous tributes and honors for the courage it took to be the NHL's first black player. But yet, somehow, he's still not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
On Wednesday night in Boston, the Bruins once again honored O'Ree before they got set to take on the Canadiens, inviting him out to the ice to drop the ceremonial face-off. Both Boston and Montreal players wore special patches on their jerseys commemorating the 60th anniversary of O'Ree's NHL debut, and that same logo was displayed on the TD Garden ice behind both nets.
Prior to the game, Boston mayor Marty Walsh held a press conference at the arena. Walsh announced that January 18th would be known as "Willie O'Ree Day" and, as part of the celebration, the city was dedicating a new street hockey rink in O'Ree's name.
While all these honors and tributes are more than well-deserved for O'Ree, they also serve as a reminder that the 82-year-old still hasn't been celebrated with hockey's ultimate honor, one that he also more than deserves: An induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
O'Ree's stats certainly aren't impressive enough to get him into the HOF on their own. The former Bruins forward only played a total of 45 career games at the NHL level, scoring just four goals and 14 points. Not exactly numbers that jump off the page, even if you consider that O'Ree was almost fully blind in one eye as a result of a hockey-related injury suffered prior to his NHL debut.
However, the Hall of Fame in Toronto inducts members under multiple categories -- including players and builders. The "builders" category highlights various members of the hockey community who have helped to build and grow the game, from coaches to general managers and executives to broadcasters and others.
O'Ree was a player, but he also was -- and still is -- a builder.
On top of tearing down the sport's color barrier and enduring the challenges that came with it, O'Ree has also served as the NHL's Diversity Ambassador for the past two decades. The league has enlisted him to spread a message that they've so often preached as a brand in recent years: "Hockey is for everyone."
"Willie's speed, his skill, and his sheer perseverance earned him a job in what was then the six-team National Hockey League, and obviously jobs as a player in those days were scarce," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman this week. "We celebrate not only the NHL games he played but the countless thousands of boys and girls he has inspired since becoming our 'Hockey is for Everyone' ambassador in 1998."
While the NHL still remains the least diverse of the four major American sports -- recent statistics show over 90-percent of the league's players identify as white -- the number of black players (and black fans) across the league seems to be picking up. Many of those players will be quick to tell you that O'Ree played a role in helping them get to where they are, whether it be directly or indirectly.
Prior to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, San Jose Sharks forward Joel Ward, one of the NHL's most prominent black players, praised O'Ree for blazing the trail and serving as a mentor for him. His admiration towards O'Ree is so strong that he suggested the league should retire his No. 22 jersey league-wide, much like Major League Baseball did for Jackie Robinson's No. 42.
"It's a no-brainer," said Ward. "Without Willie, it would be tough for me to be sitting here today. I definitely think Willie should be a big part of this."
During a visit to Philadelphia in 2015, Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds sought out O'Ree to voice his appreciation for helping set the table for future generations of black players. After the meeting, Simmonds told reporters, "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be playing the game today."
It's obvious that O'Ree's contributions to the sport extend far, far beyond stats on a page and will continue to be felt for generations to come, so why hasn't he been enshrined yet? It's a question that deserves answers.
To put things in perspective, Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs was elected to the Hall of Fame in the builders category last year. Jacobs was praised by Bettman for being a close advisor and helping to drive the league's business model. But, to many others, Jacobs is the money-hawking voice in the commissioner's ear who helped create three separate work stoppages since 1994.
You're telling me that a suit who has been at the forefront of three lockouts in two decades has done more to build the game and is more deserving of a spot in the HOF than the guy who has been the most prominent ambassador of inclusivity and diversity in that same timeframe? To put it simply, that's an absolute joke.
O'Ree has said in the past that he hopes one day he'll make it into the Hall, and maybe eventually that day will come. But he's 82 years old, and it sure would be nice if he was around to enjoy it.