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Celebrating Willie O'Ree

05/30/08 7:55AM By Brian Porto
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(HOST) Commentator, attorney and lifelong sports fan Brian Porto thinks that the man who broke the color barrier in professional hockey fifty years ago, should be more widely celebrated - for that accomplishment and for a great deal more.    

(PORTO) The final series of the National Hockey League playoffs is underway, calling to mind a hockey event that touched me more deeply than the battle for the Stanley Cup ever has. That event was the commemoration last winter by the League and the Boston Bruins of the fiftieth anniversary of the breaking of the color barrier in professional hockey.

On January 19, 1958, when 22-year-old Willie O'Ree of Fredericton, New Brunswick stepped out onto the Boston Garden ice, he became the first person of color to play in the NHL. But the more I read about O'Ree over the winter, the more I suspected that the League honored him not only for what he was-the "Jackie Robinson of Hockey," if you will-but also for who he was and is.

Willie O'Ree's two brief stints with the Bruins, in 1958 and 1961, respectively, totaling only 45 games, belie his importance as a model of courage and tenacity. Although his race targeted him for abuse from fans, especially during his long career in the minor leagues, the greatest obstacle to success that O'Ree faced was his eyesight. He was blind in his right eye, the result of being hit by a deflected shot during a junior-league game in Ontario when he was 19 years old. But just a month after a surgeon told him that he would never play hockey again, he was back on the ice, and less than three years later, he debuted with the Bruins. O'Ree says, "Desire will take you a long way."

O'Ree's desire took him far and wide. He made a comfortable living for 21 seasons playing minor league hockey, managing to keep his disability a secret. Ten years ago, he left a pleasant semi-retirement in San Diego to become Director of Youth Development for NHL Diversity, a program designed to stimulate interest in playing hockey among economically disadvantaged children of all races in the United States and Canada.

O'Ree regards his work with NHL Diversity as a greater legacy than having broken the color barrier in professional hockey. He says, "I'd like to be remembered most for what I'm doing now, for giving back to the sport for everything it gave me." He will also be remembered for reminding us all, whatever our limitations, that "desire will take you a long way" indeed. The NHL and the Bruins could not have chosen a more deserving former player to honor than Willie O'Ree.
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