O’Ree, 82 and the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador since 1998, wasn’t surprised by the recognition from the youthful crowd around him.
“You know with Google and the internet now, you can find a lot of things about anybody. In fact, if I want to know something about myself, I go to Google,” O’Ree said.
O’Ree was in town to watch the Willie O’Ree Invitational Tournament hosted by SCORE Boston, and to speak to the hundreds of players, boys and girls, from SCORE, Snider Hockey from Pennsylvania, Parkway hockey from nearby West Roxbury, and Milton hockey.
As part of the NHL’s Hockey Is For Everyone initiative, SCORE provides inner-city youth ages 6-14 from Boston with the opportunity to play hockey. The kids from SCORE represent several different neighborhoods and numerous nationalities and races, so it’s no wonder they hold O’Ree in high regard.
“He’s like a role model to me because I want to do great things like him and play professional hockey,” 15-year-old Dallas Jackson of Dorchester, Massachusetts, said. “Playing in this tournament, it’s like I’m doing something bigger than I am, making a difference. It’s an honor to play in it because he’s done so much for our sport.”
SCORE president Wendell Taylor said in an effort to show how truly diverse hockey can be, the decision was made to include two diversity programs and two Boston-area programs in the tournament. Parkway is a partner of SCORE and provides scholarship programs for its players; Milton shares ice time with SCORE. Taylor said Snider Hockey is one of several diversity programs throughout the country that are a model for other diversity programs.
Ten-year-old Jayden Lysius of Snider Hockey said he has wanted to come up to Boston since he was 8 and was thrilled to meet O’Ree.
“He’s an inspiration,” Lysius said.
Major Jones, a 12-year-old Snider Hockey player, was also excited to meet O’Ree, who has been one of his role models.
“The way he did things, the way he met challenges. The way he faced hard challenges himself and made something of himself,” Jones said.
O’Ree broke barriers and conquered adversity with grace and dignity, and his accomplishments still resonate today. That’s why it was important to SCORE to hold a tournament to honor the anniversary of O’Ree’s historic debut, and why programs like SCORE want O’Ree to continue to influence their players.
“To see someone that’s been such a positive pioneer, the things he went through to diversify the sport only made him stronger,” Taylor said about O’Ree. “Our kids, as they get on the ice, we still have some very unfortunate experiences playing hockey in Boston. What Willie shows them is the key to perseverance, never give up, no matter what someone says to you doesn’t matter, just keep on doing your best. To me, that’s the key to the program.”