February is known as Black History Month throughout the U.S. For the National Hockey League, it’s known as “Hockey is for Everyone” month.
Due to this conflict in scheduling, it has been suggested that the NHL should choose to ignore Black History Month. Instead, the league includes people from all backgrounds into their own awareness month. Read the full mission statement at nhl.com here.
“We believe all hockey programs – from professionals to youth organizations – should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status.”
The all-inclusiveness is a good move from the NHL, which is mostly dominated by Caucasians of Canadian, American or European descent. However, there is one way the NHL can clear any confusion up, and the move would be huge for the African-American community. Willie O’Ree, the first African-American hockey player in 1958, should have his number retired throughout the sport.
O’Ree was never the best player on the ice, playing in just 45 games and totaling 14 points with the Boston Bruins over the span of two partial seasons. His professional career, however, did last 21 seasons with the time he spent in the Western Hockey League (WHL). But if the NHL wants to really take a stand on diversity and support ethnic groups of all backgrounds, the league should retire his number as baseball did for Jackie Robinson.
As of now, Wayne Gretzky’s number 99 is the only number retired throughout the sport. Whether or not Mario Lemieux’s number 66 should be retired or not is a different story, but O’Ree’s number 22 should have a banner in every NHL arena. Even though he only played with the Bruins, it would be a nice touch to see his number retired in every team’s colors to show his impact not just on the Bruins, but on the sport in general. Better yet, each time a banner is raised, O’Ree should be there to do the ceremonial puck drop.
The Bruins honored O’Ree in Boston on Jan. 17 before a 4-1 victory against the Montreal Canadiens.
Currently, O’Ree serves as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, a position he has held since 1998. According to nhl.com, O’Ree has aided the “Hockey is For Everyone” initiative to help 85,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds have unique hockey experiences. Over the years, O’Ree has received numerous awards for his accomplishments and leadership roles.
Don’t get me wrong, not every sport should retire a number throughout the league for being the first to do something. However, O’Ree has done so much more and is helping to grow the game to players in areas that otherwise might not have a chance to play. After all, he paved the way for some of the best African-American players of this generation, including P.K. Subban, Jarome Iginla and Wayne Simmonds.
O’Ree had an impact on the NHL that went beyond the score sheet and is still felt today. He stands for African-Americans in the NHL community as well as all people of diverse backgrounds. What he accomplished goes further than the rink, and that alone makes him deserving of having his number retired throughout the sport.