In Fredericton, there are few names more iconic than Willie O’Ree.
He was the first Black hockey player to be drafted into the National Hockey League and now a life-size portrait of him hangs permanently in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.
Tim Okamura was the artist commissioned to do the portrait.
“Throughout this city, you can see the love for Willie, and … I’m just so blessed to be, you know, a small part of that,” he said at an unveiling Wednesday night.
Okamura is a contemporary Canadian painter who investigates identity, urban environment, metaphor and cultural iconography. He is known for his depiction of BIPOC subjects in urban settings, and his combination of graffiti and realism.
His interest in hockey started at a young age, after discovering his father’s hockey gear at their home in Edmonton.
During his speech, Okamura spoke about how he would hear from people about the lack of Black representation in hockey, specifically.
“Often the next sentence was, ‘there is no Black players in hockey,” he said.
“As a hockey aficionado, I would always be trying to educate people and say in fact there have been and there currently are and will continue to be as an important part of the sport.”
He said after explaining ‘too many times’ that there are players who are persons of colour in the NHL, he had an epiphany.
“OK, here is your work, your concern with representation and here is your passion for hockey,” Okamura said. “I’ve got an idea.”
He would go on to paint portraits of hockey legends like P.K. Subban, Joel Ward, Devante Smith-Pelly, Wayne Simmonds and Darnell Nurse.
Okamura started compiling legends and O’Ree fit naturally on that list. Through circumstance, connection and conversation, Okamura got time with O’Ree in Philadelphia.
“He was ready to go for the portrait, full suit, hat, everything laid out … and this jersey you see, he brought a stick, and fortunately due to the timing he was sporting the Hall of Fame ring,” he said.
Bringing the portrait home
O’Ree, who lives in California and couldn’t be in attendance for the unveiling, is woven into the fabric of the City of Fredericton. A major arena bears his name, there are local displays at his former high school and a booth named after him in an iconic restaurant named The Cabin.
Because of that, John Leroux, manager of collections and exhibitions at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, said it made perfect sense for it to be permanently displayed in his hometown.
“Having the portrait here is a fantastic privilege,” he said. “It captures the soul of the character, the dignity and the strength of Willie.”
Leroux believes not only can this be appreciated by art lovers, but also by sports fans who might find kinship in the art.
“It’s just great to share with the world,” he said.