Black NHLers are celebrating hockey legend Willie O’Ree’s induction into the sport’s holy shrine — the Hockey Hall of Fame.
O’Ree, now 82, was chosen Tuesday to enter the hall as a builder, for breaking the league’s colour barrier in 1958 and his continuing work as diversity ambassador.
Multiple current and former NHL players made it clear the induction had particular significance for them, saying he paved their way.
Nashville Predators defenceman P.K. Subban congratulated the New Brunswick-born O’Ree in a video posted on Twitter.
"It has been a fantastic summer for the game of hockey and for me personally being on the cover of the EA Sports NHL game, and when I look back at my career and all my accomplishments, to think that none of it would be possible without the sacrifices that Willie O’Ree made, and many, many others before me," Subban said.
"Without you Willie, none of it would be possible," he said.
Subban’s father, Karl, wrote a heartfelt letter in support of O’Ree that was included as part of the Hall of Fame submission.
"He changed the game and he changed society and he changed minds," the elder Subban wrote.
Through his years in junior hockey and into the NHL, O’Ree was often the object of insults and racial slurs.
"In junior, being the only black player, there’d be the racial slurs and remarks that were directed towards me. I learned from my older brother. He said ‘Willie, just forget about these racial remarks because you can’t change the colour of your skin and you wouldn’t want to even if you could. Just go out and concentrate on playing hockey,"’ O’Ree said.
O’Ree’s first game with the Boston Bruins was in a 3-0 win over the Canadiens in Montreal on Jan. 18, 1958, but he didn’t know he had broken the NHL’s colour barrier until he read it in the newspaper the next day.
Grant Fuhr, best known for his time as a goalie with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s, and the first black player to win the Stanley Cup, said on social media Tuesday the hall’s choice was well deserved.
Many people responding to the Twitter posts said they were surprised O’Ree wasn’t already in the hall, and couldn’t understand why it had taken so long.
Wayne Simmonds, a right winger with the Philadelphia Flyers, tweeted that O’Ree is finally in his rightful place.
In an earlier tweet from January, when the NHL celebrated 60 years since O’Ree’s first game, Simmonds said: "I want to give thanks to Mr. Willie O’Ree for making it possible for players like my self to live out our dreams! If it wasn’t for you none of this would have been possible."
Anson Carter, who also played for the Boston Bruins and wore O’Ree’s number 22 in college, said he had a bottle of bubbly ready to celebrate the news.
O’Ree will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Nov. 12 along with Martin Brodeur, former Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Russian standout Alexander Yakushev and Canadian women’s hockey team star Jayna Hefford.