Willie O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s color barrier, finally had his No. 22 retired by the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night.

“From a young age, my heart and my mind were set on making it to the NHL. I’m grateful and honored that it was with the Bruins,” O’Ree said in a speech delivered virtually before the Bruins’ 7-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Boston.

The ceremony came 64 years to the day after O’Ree, 86, became the first African American to play in an NHL game—January 18, 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens. It was supposed to happen on February 18 last year, but COVID-19 restrictions had other ideas.

He would go on to play in 45 games with Boston over the course of the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons. The number is the 12th retired by the B’s and the first since Rick Middleton’s 16 went to the rafters in 2018.

“To the Bruins fans, I am honored to have had the pleasure of playing before you. Thank you for your tremendous love and support,” O’Ree said. “This is an unforgettable day. I am overwhelmed and thrilled to be a part of the Bruins, forever.”

The Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, native has served as a diversity ambassador for the NHL over the past few decades and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.

“While my family and I looked forward to participating in the ceremonies in-person, the long travel and associated risks that come along with a cross-country trip have led us to make the difficult decision to participate virtually,” O’Ree said earlier this month.

Bruins players took the ice for warm-ups in special jerseys adorned with commemorative O’Ree patches; they also wore 22 in warm-ups. Inside the locker room, their lockers had commemorative nameplates with the patch and a photo of O’Ree. The ice had No. 22 decals behind both nets, where they will remain for the next three home games.

The city of Boston declared January 18 “Willie O’Ree Day,” with Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium, and City Hall all lit up in gold. Arenas around the league honored him on the Jumbotron before games.

“I think it’s a great honor for Willie,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. “He’s a trailblazer to say the least. I’m very happy for him and his family.”

“Tonight, my idol Willie O’Ree’s No. 22 will be hung from the rafters,” tweeted Wayne Simmonds of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I can’t stress how much Mr. O’Ree has meant to me and millions of other BIPOC kids who love the game of hockey.”

Read more about:
Chat With uSports On Facebook! Get latest news and interviews delivered directly to your Messenger!