Based in San Diego, O’Ree travels constantly. This month he has been in South Carolina, New York and Massachusetts, where a street hockey rink was named in his honor.
“He goes all around North America like crazy,” Simmonds said, “but every time I see him he’s got the biggest smile in the world and it’s infectious. You can’t be in a bad mood when you’re around him.”
While ground has been gained since O’Ree’s day, black players still face ugliness from fans. Simmonds was struck with a banana during a 2011 exhibition game in Canada. Last season, fans in Chicago taunted Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly as he sat in the penalty box, chanting, “basketball, basketball,” to indicate they thought he was in the wrong sport. Simmonds and Smith-Pelly, who are black Canadians, said they have endured other racial taunts in their careers.
“I’ve gone through my fair share of incidents,” Simmonds said, “and I would have thought, ‘Well, Mr. O’Ree probably thought the same thing, that he’d be the one enduring all the garbage to make it better for the younger kids that were coming up under him.’”
O’Ree said he was only vaguely aware of his status as a pioneer in 1958, and Fuhr, shielded slightly by spending much of his career in Canada, said he did not consider it fully until he retired. This generation of black players has embraced their roles beyond hockey and formed a tight-knit group that emphasizes the importance of past sacrifices and a vision of a fairer future.
“I want to be remembered as one of the best players that has ever played the game,” said P. K. Subban, the first black winner of the Norris Trophy for the league’s best defenseman. “But I also recognize who I am, where I come from, what I stand for and the responsibility that I have within the game of hockey.”
At last season’s All-Star weekend, Subban held court with the news media longer than any other player during the tournament. O’Ree approached him, and the two exchanged warm smiles. They later strolled off together, sharing an almost familial moment.
“It seems like Willie’s in his 40s. When you talk to him, he’s got so much energy,” Subban said, adding: “He’s just a great man. He continues, even today, to put the game of hockey and people ahead of himself, which I think is his biggest credit.”