The call to induct Fredericton-born hockey trailblazer Willie O’Ree into the Hockey Hall of Fame has received an extra push of support.
Fredericton Member of Parliament Matt DeCourcey has joined the local movement to get O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL, inducted.
DeCourcey rose in the House of Commons on Friday, saying O’Ree should be awarded that honour.
“As we celebrate Black History Month and the 60th anniversary of his breaking of the black colour barrier in professional hockey, we thank Willie for his continued service to the game and to our communities as a longtime ambassador for NHL diversity,” DeCourcey said.
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“A member of the New Brunswick Hall of Fame [and] the Order of Canada, there remains but one honour to be bestowed this person who left such an indelible mark on this sport. Mr. Speaker, for his dedication as a builder, I am sure Frederictonians, New Brunswickers, Canadians, and hockey fans around the world would share the view that it is past due time that Willie O’Ree be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
DeCourcey said O’Ree has paved the way for black athletes to be able to play professional hockey, and said he continues to serve as an ambassador and a symbol for diversity in the NHL.
“There’s been momentum around the need to see him in the Hall of Fame here locally and I thought it was due time to be on the public record expressing my support to see him inducted for all he’s contributed as a builder to the game,” DeCourcey said.
In a phone interview with Global News, O’Ree told Global News he would be elated to be inducted and is honoured to hear it was brought up in Ottawa.
“That’s nice to hear,” O’Ree said. “I’m certainly honoured, as there had been some talk of trying to get me in, but… I would be thrilled.”
O’Ree said making it into the Hall of Fame is a goal he set for himself when he was playing professional hockey.
He said he was moved to be recognized in Boston in January for his contributions to the game.
“I was thrilled and quite honoured that the City of Boston took recognition of my breaking the colour barrier back in 1958 and then honouring me for [the] 60th anniversary,” O’Ree said. “They did a fantastic job.”
DeCourcey said he’s connected with people in Fredericton who have started to organize a community-led nomination that can be sent to Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald.
“I’m happy to support an initiative led by the community to recognize Willie O’Ree,” DeCourcey said. “We will put together as strong a nomination package as we can… to say to the NHL, to say to people right across this country and right across North America, that it’s due time to recognize Willie O’Ree for his contributions to the game and to our communities.”
Fredericton resident Robert Mabie grew up playing hockey with O’Ree.
“I played schoolboy hockey against Willie way back when we were youngsters and he always played a league above me because he was a better hockey player,” Mabie said.
The two then went on to play for the Quebec Frontenacs together in 1954.
“Willie was a good hockey player and I spent part of my time in the Junior B level and then they’d take me up and down from Junior B to Junior A,” Mabie recalled.
“We roomed together — they had a hotel that the hockey team stayed in, and we got our meals and everything there and we stayed in the same room for the entire year.”
Mabie said he would love to see O’Ree inducted into the Hall adding he appreciates seeing local leaders like DeCourcey taking action.
“The more people that we can get involved, the better chance he has of getting in, I would believe,” Mabie said. “It would be great for Willie, and it would be great for the NHL Hall of Fame.”
Mabie said he hasn’t seen O’Ree in quite a while and said they have lost touch other than when O’Ree returns to Fredericton for special events, but notes he remembers his former teammate as “just a great guy — a gentleman all the time [who] loves everybody and everybody loves him.”
O’Ree said he will always consider Fredericton home.
“First of all, Fredericton has been my hometown since I was born there and I fell in love with the fans there when I had the opportunity to play,” he said.
“I still have a number of close friends there and I still have some family, but I consider Fredericton my home, although I live in San Diego and [have] resided there since 1967.”
DeCourcey said the deadline for public submissions for nominations to the Hall of Fame is March 15. He said once the nomination is submitted, it will go to all the members of the Hall’s board of governors.
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