It’s been too long since big-time hockey has been played in San Diego, but the arrival of the new San Diego Gulls, compliments of the Anaheim Ducks, has solved that.
The Ducks have relocated their American Hockey League franchise to San Diego, and will be stocking the roster with high-quality skaters, among whom will be the first callups to the National League for injuries or other situations. The quality of hockey will be outstanding, especially since the Ducks are among the pre-season favorites to contend for the Stanley Cup.
One testimony to how long hockey has been gone from the San Diego scene, and the San Diego psyche, is that Willie O’Ree is turning 80 years old this month.
O’Ree, who is currently Director of Youth Development and an ambassador for diversity for the National Hockey League, is famed as the first black player in the National Hockey League and arguably the most popular player in San Diego history.
But as someone who has had the good fortune of knowing Willie for the last nearly 50 years as PR Director of the Western League Gulls, and also as a roommate and friend, I can attest to one thing for sure. As terrific a hockey player as Willie was, he is a better human being.
Having overcome all the obstacles thrown in his path — emotional, physical and otherwise — it’s amazing that there isn’t a touch of bitterness or cynicism to be found in this man.
His work with the National Hockey League requires a pretty intense travel schedule, many weeks away from home in any outpost where the NHL spots a need.
If there’s a group of youngsters who need some inspiration along with their hockey instruction, O’Ree is on the job.
The physical toll of a long and distinguished hockey career have taken a toll on Willie’s legs and health. He played most of his career with the sight of one eye. the result of a hockey injury in the early stages of his career. But he boldly soldiers on,
placing the needs of others before the rest and relaxation he has earned.
One of the reasons for the immense popularity of hockey along the palm trees and golf courses of San Diego and Southern California originally was and continues to be the accessibility of the players. Many of the early Western League Gulls settled in San Diego and made close friends along the “civilian population.”
O’Ree is in the forefront of players who have made San Diego home and become part of the fabric of the community. If it involves hockey, particularly youth hockey, Willie will probably be involved in one way or another. His energy has not flagged from the days he skated on the Sports Arena ice.
As the young and green PR Director of the Gulls, one of my first assignments was to meet Willie at the airport when he flew into San Diego for the announcement of his signing with the Gulls.
Neither of us could have imagined that day was the start of a lifelong friendship…one that I hope has been as rewarding and pleasant for him as it has for me.
Reed Nessel, a native Chicagoan, grew up with hockey. He was a sportswriter who covered hockey at the San Francisco Examiner, Palo Alto Times and San Diego Evening Tribune, and was Public Relations Director for the San Diego Gulls from 1967-1972.