When Willie O'Ree made his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins in 1957-58, he found no significance in his No. 22 jersey. The Hall of Famer now realizes the number's significance in more ways than one: O'Ree was 22 upon breaking the NHL's color barrier, and his No. 22 jersey is set to hang in TD Garden's rafters for years to come.
The Boston Bruins retired O'Ree's jersey ahead of their home game Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes, an honor O'Ree "never imagined" would come. O'Ree's jersey is now among 12 retired by Boston, including Eddie Shore, Lionel Hitchman, Bobby Orr, Dit Clapper, Phil Esposito, Cam Neely, Johnny Bucyk, Milt Schmidt, Rick Middleton, Terry O'Reilly and Ray Bourque.
O'Ree, who joined his jersey-retirement ceremony virtually, said he'll "never forget how my teammates in the Bruins locker room accepted me as one of their own" during a time when "some of the fans and opposing players were not ready to see a Black man in the NHL."
But O'Ree battled more than racial discrimination to reach his goal of playing in the NHL. A puck hit O'Ree's right eye during a junior game, shattering his retina. O'Ree said the doctor told him he'd be blind and never play hockey again.
The potential career-ending injury didn't phase O'Ree.
"I told myself, 'Willie, forget about what you can't see and focus on what you can see.' Three years later, I was called up to the Bruins to play my first NHL game," the 86-year-old O'Ree said. "From a young age, my heart and mind were set on making it to the NHL. I am grateful and honored it was with the Bruins."
O'Ree, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 2018, played 45 games across two seasons with the Bruins, per Hockey Reference. The former winger has served as the NHL's diversity ambassador since 1998, helping build the league's Hockey is for Everyone initiative.
The Hockey for Everyone initiative is attempting to grow the game among children with diverse backgrounds. O'Ree already served as a strong example by being the NHL's first Black player, and the Bruins jersey retirement only adds to his legendary status.