Willie O'Ree Hockey Hall of Fame SpeechNov 12, 2018
At the age of 14 I had set two goals for myself: play professional hockey and one day play in the National Hockey League. All I wanted was to be a hockey player. All I needed was the opportunity.
To be here with you tonight is simply overwhelming. There are no words to express how humble and grateful I am to be part of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
I thank the Selection Committee for the incredible honor and offer heartfelt congratulations to my fellow inductees.
To my wife Deljeet, and daughter Chandra, I am thankful to share this special moment with you.
Believe it or not, on January the 18th, 1958, when I stepped on the ice with the Bruins it did not dawn on me that I was breaking the color barrier. That’s how focused I was on making my dream come true.
I did not realize I had made history until I read it in the paper the next day.
I have spent 67 years of my life in hockey. Now, as the NHL’s ambassador, I travel across North America introducing boys and girls to the game I love. We also focus on life lessors. Hockey teaches us, and most importantly, setting goals.
My mission is to give them the opportunity like I was given.
Years ago I was doing an event in Los Angeles. Snoop Dogg was there. We know he loves the game. When I got him out there on skates, he said, ‘Willie, I hope I don’t fall.’ I told him what I tell the kids. “If you fall, just get back up.’
As a teen, I looked up to Herbie and Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre. They paved the way for me, they just never got the opportunity I did.
When I lost the sight in my right eye playing junior, the doctor told me I would never play again. I refused to accept that. His words did not discourage me. They fueled me to try harder, to never give up.
Three years later, I broke the color barrier.
In life and sports, there are people who assist you along the way. My brother Richard was one of those people. When playing hockey together, he used to check me so hard that tears would come to my eyes. He wanted me to be ready for the pros.
My sister Betty encouraged me, too. She was there when I told her about losing sight in my right eye. She believed in me and kept it a secret.
I would like to thank Lou Barrow (Joe Louis) from USA Hockey for recommending me to the NHL in 1996. I am grateful to Brian McBride, who was the vice president of the NHL’s diversity program at that time. Many thanks to Ken Martin Jr. for your support and courage. Thank you Eustace King, my agent and friend. I would also like to thank the people of my hometown Fredericton, especially David and Brenda Sampson for spearheading my induction submission.
A heartfelt thanks to all the players and coaches I had the pleasure of playing with.
Finally, I would like to thank Commissioner Gary Bettman for trusting me with his vision for the future of the NHL, that hockey is for everyone. We’ve made some substantial progress over the past 20 years. Lives are being changed thanks to your leadership and your continued support allows us to make the game more diverse and inclusive each day. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the opportunity you have given me and congratulations, Gary, on your well-deserved induction tonight. I am honored to share this with you.
True strength comes from diversity and inclusion. It makes kids better, families better, it makes the game better. We know that because of players like Mike Marson, Jarome Iginila, Grant Fuhr and so may others who have also broken barriers.
Tonight I am here to tell you we are not done because the work is not done. We have barriers to break and knock down, opportunities to give.
I leave this with you: When you return to your communities, take a look around, find a young boy or girl who needs the opportunity to play hockey and give it to them. You never know, they may make us dream.
Thank you for this incredible evening.