Bruins to retire No. 22 jersey of Willie O’Ree, first Black player in NHL

Barry Chin

The Bruins announced Tuesday that they will retire Willie O’Ree’s number 22 jersey prior to the team’s game against the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 18.

“On behalf of the Boston Bruins organization I would like to congratulate Willie O’Ree as well as his wife, Deljeet, and his daughter, Chandra, on having his number retired in the TD Garden rafters,” said Bruins president Cam Neely. “Willie’s contributions to the game of hockey transcend on-ice accomplishments and have opened countless doors for players who have come after him. He is without question deserving of this honor.”

Given COVID-19 restrictions, the ceremony will likely take place without fans at TD Garden. Despite this circumstance, the organization said it believes it is important to move forward with a virtual pre-game ceremony. Once protocols allow, the team said it will again honor O’Ree in front of a full TD Garden.

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O’Ree became the first Black player to compete in an NHL game on Jan. 18, 1958, when he dressed for the Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens, despite being legally blind in one eye. Following the game, he said, “It was the greatest thrill of my life, I believe. I will always remember this day.”

O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2018 as part of the “Builder” category, which is defined by “coaching, managerial or executive ability, or ability in another significant off-ice role, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general.

In 2018, in celebration of the 60th anniversary of O’Ree’s first game, the NHL and the Bruins donated to Boston parks and recreation a refurbished street hockey rink, dedicated “Willie O’Ree Rink,” at Smith Field in Allston.

O’Ree is the 12th player to have his number retired by the Bruins.

He joins: Lionel Hitchman (No. 3, 1934), Aubrey “Dit” Clapper (No. 5, 1947), Eddie Shore (No. 2, 1949), Milt Schmidt (No. 15, 1957), Bobby Orr (No. 4, 1979), Johnny. Bucyk (No. 9, 1980), Phil Esposito (No. 7, 1987), Ray Bourque (No. 77, 2001), Terry O’Reilly (No. 24, 2002), Cam Neely (No. 8, 2004) and Rick Middleton (No. 16, 2018).

“Throughout the history of the National Hockey League, there have been very few individuals that have had such a profound impact on the league and its culture than Willie O’Ree,” said Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs. “After breaking the color barrier as a Boston Bruin in 1958 and eventually retiring from professional hockey in 1979, Willie became the ultimate ambassador for improving diversity and inclusion within the game of hockey. The entire hockey world is forever indebted to Willie for all that he has done, and continues to do, for the sport. We are incredibly proud to retire Willie’s number and cement his legacy as one of Boston’s greatest athletes.”

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Since 1998, O’Ree has worked for the NHL as a diversity ambassador, focusing on the league’s “Hockey Is For Everyone” initiatives.

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