When Willie O’Ree hung up his skates from professional hockey, he likely didn’t realize that 60 years later his face would be featured on commemorative skates.
O’Ree was the first Black person to play in the National Hockey League, breaking the colour barrier in 1958 when he suited up for the Boston Bruins.
Earlier this week, some NHL players wore special Bauer skates with a graphic of O’Ree’s face coupled with the number 22, the Fredericton native’s jersey number.
The skates also include a quote from O’Ree’s Hockey Hall of Fame induction speech in 2018: “All I needed was the opportunity.”
According to Eustace King, O’Ree’s agent, the former hockey player was ecstatic when he opened the skates that Bauer sent to him.
“It was almost similar to a young person unboxing something at Christmas,” King said.
King described his client of almost 20 years as humble, and said the fact that Bauer honoured him this way meant a lot to O’Ree, who’s now 85.
“I think in his mind he saw the skate as something that was unique, and it was the first time this had ever been done — that a skate of this magnitude had been created, by a major manufacturer, and then it debuted in an NHL game,” King said.
Bauer made 24 pairs of the skates with 15-16 pairs going to NHL players to wear, either for warm-up or during a game.
Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane and Florida Panthers forward Anthony Duclair were two of the players to wear the skates.
Other pairs are being used for other commemorations, including one pair that will be going to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The worn skates will be signed and returned to Bauer so the company can auction them off and send the proceeds to Black Girl Hockey Club — a non-profit dedicated to uniting Black women in the hockey community.
Patrick Kane is one of several <a href=”https://twitter.com/NHL?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@NHL</a> players who is honoring Willie O’Ree and celebrating <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/BlackHistoryMonth?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#BlackHistoryMonth</a> with these custom <a href=”https://twitter.com/BauerHockey?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@BauerHockey</a> skates! <a href=”https://t.co/5mxBwnRwSC”>pic.twitter.com/5mxBwnRwSC</a>
Darryl Hughes, director of sports marketing with Bauer Hockey, said the company started planning for the skates shortly after the NHL season started last month.
“We just started sharing ideas and found ourselves going down the direction of a custom skate to not only celebrate the career of Willie O’Ree, but call attention to the importance of diversity and inclusion in hockey.”
The skates aren’t available for sale to the general public, with the exception of the pairs that will be auctioned.
But O’Ree fans in Fredericton will be able to see the skates themselves.
Fredericton city councillor Kevin Darrah sent a tweet to the company suggesting that a pair of the skates would look good at the Willie O’Ree Place, an arena on Fredericton’s north side.
Mayor Mike O’Brien followed up with a note to the company.
Hughes said Bauer agreed to the request and will be sending a pair to the city in the coming weeks.