Retire Willie O'Ree's 22 in the NHL
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As we engage with our surroundings, we are actively leaving our fingerprints on history. More often than not, we don’t realize the impact the fingerprints of our role models have until they’re gone. If the year 2020 has taught us anything is that we cannot take our time here for granted.
This year we have lost those who have been influential in the progression and fight for equality. From our civil rights leaders John Lewis, Fred L Davis, Charles Evers, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rev. Dr. Joseph Echols Lowery, to our first barrier breakers Katherine Johnson, John Thompson, “Gentle” Ben Williams, Jon Blake, and Bob Ryland, to the heroes we let into our homes and lives, Chadwick Boseman and Kobe Bryant. In a time that we see so much loss within the community, we need to celebrate those we look up to while we can.
Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier in 1947. He died in 1972, and it wasn’t until 25 years after his death, 40 years after his retirement, that Jackie’s inspirational 42 was finally retired across MLB. Jackie’s time and impact aren’t just some chapter in a history book. His impact is very real and echoes down through time. A prime example of his tangible influence are his encounters with Willie O’Ree. At the time, the first black baseball player in the MLB met the future first black hockey player in the NHL, twice. In an environment which shunned and ridiculed the groundbreaking work Jackie was doing, Willie found inspiration to carry on the work. In a world that didn’t see him as equal, Willie O’Ree made his fabled NHL debut in 1958 when the Boston Bruins bested the Montreal Canadians in a 3-0 victory at the Montreal Forum.
Willie O’Ree is almost 85 years old. He still continues to grow the game of hockey and serve as a beacon to the BIPOC youth entering the game. His very figure aids in dispelling the myth that this game is not meant for black and brown kids. His efforts have finally been recognized with his 2018 Builder induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. His story has been portrayed in the documentary “Willie.” Willie’s history is here; his impact is now. Every black and brown person who has made it to the NHL has given acknowledgement and gratitude to Willie for pioneering the path they now skate. Willie faced the ugly adversity so the generations behind him may have it a bit easier. Willie's contribution to the game of hockey - in partnership with the NHL - has been to provide access to the sport to communities of color throughout North America. His greatest success will be measured by the number of kids who lace up skates or hold a hockey stick for the first time.
As someone who has been noted as the Jackie Robinson of hockey, how is 22 not bestowed the same honor as baseball’s 42? How long must we wait to see Willie and his contributions receive the flowers they’re due? Wayne Gretzky, “The Great One,” waited just one year after his retirement to see his 99 retired league wide. The Willie O’Ree of hockey, a barrier breaker, the first to do it, is more than deserving to see 22 retired, from every team, forever. It is time to complete giving Willie his just due. It is time to celebrate the contributions and development of everyone who has followed him and, it is time to celebrate the diversity to which the NHL continues to show its commitment to. #Retire22
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