OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has added himself to a long list of people inspired by the life and career of William O’Ree, who in January 1958 became the first Black man to play in the National Hockey League (NHL).
Trudeau says he keeps a signed hockey stick from O’Ree as a constant reminder of the work that remains to combat racism.
Both Trudeau and O’Ree participated in a virtual assembly with Canadian students on February 1, marking both the first day of Black History Month and the Canadian release of a new documentary about O’Ree.
Trudeau said he keeps the stick O’Ree gave him on a visit to Parliament Hill in 2018 next to his desk, where it represents the work still outstanding “to make sure that our game, and our country, includes everyone.”
“On a personal level, that hockey stick is a symbol of your incredible strength and perseverance and always a daily reminder in the work ahead of us to fight racism and discrimination,” Trudeau told O’Ree.
O’Ree, now 85, played professional hockey for more than two decades, including 45 games for the Boston Bruins in 1958 and 1961. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, and later this month the Bruins will retire his sweater number.
O’Ree said it is an honour to remain with hockey and continue to work with young people.
O’Ree has been the NHL’s director of youth development and diversity ambassador since 1998. He said he decided when he was 14 that he wanted to be in the NHL, and that any young person with a big dream needs to remember hard work, and three specific words: choices, decisions and consequences.
“If you take a look at these words and the meaning of them I think that will help you in your daily life,” he said.
Students from across Canada participated in the event, hosted by Classroom Connections, and were able to ask questions of Trudeau, O’Ree and other participants.
Canadian Olympic medallist Sarah Nurse, a member of Canada’s hockey team at the 2018 Olympics, said O’Ree opened doors for players like herself.
“I’m just here to follow in Willie’s footsteps,” she said, noting Willie’s story needs to be shared more.
Students asked O’Ree several questions, including how he kept up his confidence, and whether he had ever experienced racism from his own teammates.
O’Ree said that his teammates were always supportive but the film documents the racism he experienced throughout his life and career.
Last year, several NHL players spoke out about racism they had experienced and what they deemed lacklustre attempts to diversify the game.