Willie O’Ree has become a household name in hockey.
The native son of Fredericton, N.B., and 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee was the first black player to make it to the NHL when he suited up for the Boston Bruins in 1958.
But before his more recent notoriety and a push to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, a film crew in his home province set out to get him the respect he deserved.
A special screening of the documentary Echoes in the Rink: The Willie O’Ree Story was held at the New Brunswick Museum on Sunday.
The film, which first aired in 1997 but was six years in the making, chronicles O’Ree’s triumphs and struggles as well as his ascent to what would be a short NHL career but a more than 20-year run in pro hockey.
Tony Merzetti, one of the film’s producers, says his team created the film after they learned that O’Ree’s amazing story was not getting any recognition.
“Decades had gone by, and no one was talking about Willie. He wasn’t revered like Jackie Robinson was for breaking the baseball colour barrier so we thought this was an important thing that we could do,” Merzetti said.
Shortly after the film aired in 1997, O’Ree would be hired by the NHL to work with and encourage minority youth to play hockey.
“He has made a huge impact and, you know, we played some part in making that happen,” Merzetti said.
There are also other New Brunswick hockey stories to be told.
Dave Nicholson is a former Canadian senior hockey champion from the 1970s. He says that Saint John can boast of national championships ranging from the major junior to professional ranks.
“It’s quite a feat for the city, I think, that four teams have won national titles at various levels. It’s a feather in our hat,” said Nicholson.
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Players and those who follow Canada’s game say hockey memories never seem to fade.
Mac Wickens, who worked at Lord Beaverbrook Arena in Saint John for half a century, can attest.
“I’ll sit in the corner or I’ll sit in the centre ice area, viewing the bleachers, and I can reminisce. I can see all the fans that we used to have,” he said.
It looks like more hockey stories are in the works: Merzetti says he has been told another Willie O’Ree documentary could be released as early as this year.