Willie O’Ree public nomination package sent to Hockey Hall of Fame

Willie O'Ree, known best for being the first black player in the National Hockey League, is shown at Willie O'Ree Place in Fredericton, N.B., on Thursday, June 22, 2017. Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press

Fredericton residents Brenda and David Sansom say the public nomination package to get Willie O’Ree inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame has officially been submitted for consideration.

The Sansoms spent the last several weeks gathering hundreds of letters of support to include in the nomination package. They said they want to see O’Ree inducted in the “Builder” category for all his contributions to the sport.

“Willie has done so much for hockey and he’s done so much for groups that would not normally be involved in hockey,” Brenda said.

She said the package was submitted electronically on Tuesday, prior to the March 15 deadline.

“We have been almost consumed with it for the last two-and-a-half weeks and this is what we’ve been doing. But it’s been fun, it’s been rewarding and it’s certainly been exciting,” Brenda said.

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“David would go after one person and I would go after another, so at the end of the day, we have NHL players, Danny Grant, Mike Eagles, we have Premier Gallant, we have past premier Frank McKenna, and we have Senator David Adams Richards, and on top of that, we have many individuals in the community.”

READ MORE: Frederictonians hoping to see Willie O’Ree inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame

David said he thought the support would mainly come from within Fredericton, and said the response has been “overwhelming.”

“We just get more and more response every day on it,” David said. “We were on a deadline so our submission had to go yesterday, the 15th is the cutoff, so we went with what we had which was a whole lot more than we envisioned when we started.”

READ MORE: Fredericton MP joins push to get Willie O’Ree into Hockey Hall of Fame

He said he has no way of knowing why O’Ree wasn’t already inducted into the Hall of Fame, but said it could simply come down to no one else having taken initiative to go through the submission process.

David said it would mean the world to him to see his friend inducted, and said it would be very “humbling.”

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“Willie doesn’t let himself get swept away or overwhelmed, but he knows there’s a whole lot of support for him out there and I think he’d be through the roof once he hears the positive word in June,” David said.

READ MORE: Willie O’Ree looks back at the night he broke the NHL’s colour barrier

Brenda said the application will go from the Hall of Fame to a selection committee.

“The selection committee meets sometime in April and we will know in June about our success,” she said. “It is in their hands now… Just thinking about it, it would be very meaningful for Willie to be successful.”

All parties throw support behind nomination in legislature

MLAs from each party stood up Wednesday to express their support for O’Ree, passing a motion for the New Brunswick Legislature to join the growing number of people from New Brunswick, Canada and the United States in urging the selection committee of the Hockey Hall of Fame to add O’Ree to its list of inductees.

The motion was initially tabled by Deputy Premier Stephen Horsman on Tuesday, rising again Wednesday to discuss the motion.

“Mr. Speaker, as you know, there’s a growing movement to have Willie inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. I can’t think of anybody more deserving, not only did he have to face racism, but, of course, we now know he had other challenges as well to overcome,” Horsman said.

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“He lost sight in one of his eyes after a slapshot hit him in the head when he was playing in the Junior league. He kept that injury to himself though and pursued his dream of becoming an NHL player.”

Horsman said since O’Ree made his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins in 1958, there have been 85 black players in the NHL.

“One thing Willie had said about playing in the NHL was that the taunting was much more worse in the United States than it was here in Canada. He would be told to ‘go back to the south,’ or go ‘back to picking cotton.’ Mr. Speaker, playing under those conditions would be extremely hard, but Willie rose to the challenge.

Green Party Leader David Coon said he couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for O’Ree to have dealt with those comments and conditions.

“Think back to the trials and tribulations of the Civil Rights Movement and what went on during that period of time, Mr. Speaker, and here was Willie O’Ree taking the abuse that he got out there on the ice from some fans,” Coon said. “It couldn’t have been easy. And he held his head up, not just when he was going into the corners, but he held his head up because of what he was doing, because of who he was. It’s just fantastic.”

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Progressive Conservative Gagetown-Petitcodiac MLA Ross Wetmore also threw his support behind O’Ree and said O’Ree has advanced hockey all around the world.

“There’s 276 players in the Hockey Hall of Fame today. There are 107 builders, there are 16 on-ice officials that have been inducted into the Hall of Fame and to induct Willie O’Ree is a long overdue honour,” Wetmore said.

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