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Monday, November 12, 2018

By Harry Cummins

     There's a centuries-old refrain from an Eliza Hewitt hymn that says "When we all get to Heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be."  The sports world should make a joyful noise today. Willie O'Ree has just skated into hockey's version of heaven.

     When the 83 year-old O'Ree steps forward today to be inducted  into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Canada, he will be remembered in many cities, including Portland, Oregon.  Willie O'Ree was historically significant as the first black player in the NHL, playing 45 games over the course of 2 seasons.. His lengthy career spanned 24 seasons, most of them concealed from view in the hinterlands of the minor leagues.  O'Ree played in the Western Hockey League  from 1967-1974 as a member of the San Diego Gulls, visiting the Rose City many times to take on Connie Madigan and the Portland Buckaroos.

     My particular introduction to O'Ree came during his tenure as a San Diego Gull, as I was a beat reporter assigned to cover the team for the UPI wire service.  From its origin, the fledgling hockey franchise in sun-splashed San Diego was wildly successful, out-drawing the NHL franchise in Los Angeles to the north. SRO crowds of 14,000 were commonplace  in the 13,000 seat San Diego Sports Arena, especially on nights when Connie "Mad Dog" Madigan and his Portland Buckaroos came calling.  

     Vivid memories of those years linger.  I will never forget the lightning-like rushes up the rink by O'Ree, goal sirens screeching, and the overhead message screen flashing the words "Boy, are you GULLible!!!   Of course there were the heated contests against Portland.  Every time Portland's dreaded 'bad boy' Madigan was whistled for a violation, which was often, fans seated behind the penalty box would drape rubber chickens on a string over the plexiglass and into Madigan's face.  On one such memorable occasion, Madigan swung his stick, sending chickens flying everywhere.  Fittingly, Madigan was later cast to play the character Ross Madison in the cult film classic, "Slap Shot" and became the oldest "rookie" to debut in the National Hockey League at the age of 38.

    O'Ree, one of 13 siblings, continues to spend his post-hockey years as a diversity ambassador for his sport, working with young hockey players across North America in outreach programs. He still resides in San Diego. Many never knew he played all those years permanently blinded in his right eye, struck by an errant puck at age 19. It was particularly challenging for a left winger, since most passes directed across ice from teammates arrived from his right side.

     Willie O'Ree has overcome much to become a living legend of his sport.  The San Diego Gulls have long since retired his number #22, suspending it from the rafters of an aging Sports Arena.  Today in Toronto, Canada, O'Ree forever resides where he belongs, in the public heedfulness of hockey's Hall of Fame  







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