Hometown retired hockey hero Willie O'Ree spoke to a capacity crowd of students at Fredericton High School on Sept. 13, telling the audience his best advice for today's youth is to believe in yourself and never give up on your dreams and goals.
O'Ree is a Canadian former professional ice hockey player, known best for being the first black player in the National Hockey League. O'Ree played as a winger for the Boston Bruins, officially joining the team in 1958. Today, he is a member of the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, the National Hockey Sports Hall of Fame and is also a recipient of the Order of Canada. He is recognized as a pioneer of hockey and a dedicated youth mentor.
The City of Fredericton recently named a fully accessible, state-of-the art facility on the north side of the city, the Will O'Ree Place. It features two NHL-sized ice surfaces. Today, O'Ree works for the NHL's youth development program and speaks to youth as part of his travels.
"It's very important to stay focused on your goals, work at what you want to do," O'Ree said. "Believe in yourself and what you can achieve. You need to stay in school and get as much education as you can. When you move on, you'll be ready to move into a different era. Don't let anybody tell you can't achieve your goals."
Early in his hockey career, O'Ree sustained a serious eye injury that threatened his dream to become a professional hockey player. He kept his injury a secret for over 20 years, scoring 1,000 points over the course of his long career.
O'Ree said most hockey players he met were supportive of his desire to play hockey although he said some racism did exist from time to time. Despite this, he worked to stay positive and not let personal remarks prevent him from achieving success.
"I was just another hockey player, I wasn't a brown or black hockey player. I was a hockey player there to win the game. I set two goals for myself when I was 14 -- to play professional hockey and join the NHL. Now I want to give back to hockey what it has given to me. I've been very fortunate to meet a lot of boys and girls like you."
O'Ree is often referred to as the Jackie Robinson of ice hockey for breaking the colour barrier in the sport. O'Ree told the students he met Robinson twice in his younger years in 1949 and again in 1962 while in the United States and it gave him courage to continue toward his goals.
O'Ree told the students to remember: "You have choices, decisions and consequences. Those are the things you deal with everyday."
The hockey great played with various NHL teams over the years, but said his favorite hockey team is still the Boston Bruins. His most memorable moment on the ice took place in 1961 when he scored his first goal on New Year's Eve. It was also the winning goal allowing the Bruins to beat Montreal with a score of 3-2.
During the school assembly, Fredericton High School presented O'Ree with a Black Kats jersey as a member of their hockey alumni.
Shown in the photos below (1) Willie O'Ree entering a packed gymnasium at Fredericton High School; (2) Willie O'Ree accepts his Black Kats jersey from high school teacher Shawn Ells.