Weekes applauds O'Ree's diversity efforts

Tuesday, 02.10.2009 / 3:43 PM ET / Features
By Eric Marin
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Weekes applauds O\'Ree\'s diversity efforts
Willie O'Ree at Monday's game.
newjerseydevils.com – The sellout crowd came to its feet as Willie O’Ree walked to center ice Monday at Prudential Center. The cheers only grew louder as he dropped the puck for a ceremonial faceoff between Patrik Elias and Chris Drury.

Hockey fans know what O'Ree means to their game. He has become a household name as much as Gretzky or Howe or Orr, transcending the sport of ice hockey for the impact he has had on its history.

O’Ree first broke in with the Boston Bruins as a 22-year-old during the 1957-58 season. He made two appearances that year and forever changed the NHL as its first black player.

In addition to 45 total games with Boston, O’Ree’s pro hockey career spanned nearly three decades, including 13 seasons split between the Western Hockey League’s Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls. Last season, the NHL celebrated the 50th anniversary of O'Ree's debut.

Now 73, O’Ree remains a key figure in the league’s diversity efforts, which are going strong this month with the Hockey is for Everyone initiative. He's currently the Director of Youth Development for NHL Diversity, a program geared toward broadening the league’s grassroots outreach.

Devils' goaltender Kevin Weekes deeply respects O’Ree’s accomplishments and the league's ongoing efforts to make hockey more accessible. The pair teamed up in 2007 for an appearance in the CW comedy Everybody Hates Chris.

“He’s awesome,” said Weekes, now in his second season with the Devils. “He’s very down to earth, fun-loving, young-spirited and just very uplifting and positive. I think if you look at him it’s a perfect example: it’s his service to the game beyond himself. Obviously, he knows what his accomplishment was and the magnitude of that accomplishment, he’s even gone beyond that and he’s a tribute to the game.

“Willie’s been a great ambassador for our game, and that’s as much of an achievement as paving the way for us to be here and to be in this position today.”

Hockey is for Everyone is a component of "The Biggest Assist Happens off the Ice," which provides support and unique programming to non-profit youth hockey organizations across North America. It’s all about offering children of all backgrounds opportunities to play hockey, and already has exposed close to 45,000 boys and girls to unique hockey experiences.

Weekes has every reason to believe in hockey's cross-cultural appeal. Raised in Toronto by parents Vadney and Carol, who immigrated from Barbados in the 1970s, he has enjoyed a 10-year career in the NHL. He posted his 100th career win on Nov. 21 against the Islanders, and even brought the flag of Barbados along for the ride – it's painted right on the back of his mask in tribute to his Bajan heritage.

A look at the flag of Barbados on Weekes' mask.
"Your choices of sport should not be limited to just two or three of the major league sports: baseball, basketball, football," Weekes said. "I think it’s great to give people another medium for sport, and that’s really the key. Sports is like art – it’s culture. It’s like food. You don’t necessarily have to be a certain ethnicity to eat a particular kind of food. Sports, as you see in the Olympics, is one of those things that transcends everything."

Weekes maintains an active role in charities such as Shoot For A Cure, which works to promote prevention of hockey-related spinal cord injuries, and Skillz Hockey, a grassroots hockey initiative that he founded. For Weekes, getting kids involved is the first step toward growing the game.

“You have to continue to work at the grassroots level,” he said. “Pop Warner football and Little League baseball have an impact across every single background in the United States; that’s what we have to continue to shoot for as far as minor hockey is concerned. We have to start here first. Continue it in Canada, really cultivate it in the U.S., and bring it across the globe.”

A glance at the NHL’s scoring leaders shows Americans, Canadians, Czechs and Russians; clearly the sport has made major gains all over the world. Season openers in London, Prague, and Stockholm can only grow the sport's footprint.

Still, there’s more work to be done.

“You look at President Obama and see there’s no reason for any kid, regardless of where they come from or what their last name is, to feel as though they can’t participate in something positive," said Weekes. "That’s not what North America’s all about. A lot of our parents immigrate here for the simple fact that they believe in the opportunities that are here. Hockey should be an opportunity.”

An opportunity that first became a reality thanks to Willie O'Ree.