Hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree’s tour of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American received great media coverage on Wednesday, AP/USA Today reported. When the player who broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958 stood next to a statue of Jackie Robinson, Commissioner Gary Bettman paused to take his phone out and snap a few photos of his own.
The two of them have attended countless events together over the past two decades, but this tour on the opening day of the season and a month before they’re inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame together was a unique opportunity for an influential newsmaker to immerse himself in hundreds of years of history.
“It brought back a lot of memories for me. My grandparents, they were slaves, and then bringing up to date, it’s just amazing,” O’Ree stressed, as he wiped tears from his eyes.
During the event, sports curator Damion Thomas talked about the small buildings slaves slept in in after picking cotton from sunrise to sunset. O’Ree also stopped to read about Michael Jordan’s influence and got a kick out of a story about Chuck Berry driving a red Cadillac on stage to perform at St. Louis’ Fox Theatre.
Memories came flooding back in a room featuring a picture of one of Robinson’s games in Atlanta with so many people packed into the stadium that some were on the field. O’Ree sat down in one of the replica seats from Ebbets Field and recalled meeting Robinson in the dugout after a game at age 14 and telling him he played not only baseball but hockey, too.
“He remarked that, ‘I didn’t know that there were any black kids playing hockey’.” I said, ‘Yeah, there’s a few’,” O’Ree said. Thirteen years later when O’Ree was playing professional hockey in Los Angeles, a coach introduced him to Robinson. Or, rather, re-introduced him, AP adds.
“Mr. Robinson turned around and said, ‘Willie O’Ree, aren’t you the young fella I met in Brooklyn’? So he remembered me from 1949 to 1962 and that made a big impact on me,” O’Ree said.
O’Ree’s impact is still being felt today as there are now more than two dozen black players in the NHL. There isn’t yet anything about the Canadian-born O’Ree in the museum, though that could change after he and Bettman got to experience what it was all about.
“This museum is amazing As a bit of a history buff, there’s so much I didn’t know and that I was learning and it’s clear to me that I have to come back. But as importantly to be able to experience this with Willie, special doesn’t begin to describe it,” the Commissioner pointed out.