NEWARK, N.J. — Madison Bowey always wore No. 22 on the baseball field growing up, but it was taken whenever he joined a hockey team.
That was the case as the defenseman turned himself into an NHL prospect and joined the Capitals’ system as a second-round pick in 2013. The number was taken again as he proved himself in the American Hockey League. But No. 22 was available when he was called up to the Capitals at the start of this season, and the 22-year-old will be especially proud to wear it when he takes the ice against the New Jersey Devils in Newark on Thursday night.
“It’s pretty special to be in the NHL and playing my first NHL year on the 60th anniversary of Willie O’Ree,” Bowey said Thursday. “There’s a lot of significance behind that, and obviously he’s a very special person.”
Thursday marks 60 years since O’Ree became the NHL’s first black player, breaking the league’s color barrier with the Boston Bruins in a game against the Montreal Canadiens. Bowey, who is biracial with a black father, wears No. 22 in O’Ree’s honor (and, of lesser importance, because Bowey was born April 22, 1995). As Bowey was growing up, his dad taught him about O’Ree and the challenges the New Brunswick native faced while integrating the sport.
Bowey is now midway through his rookie season with the Capitals, and he is one of roughly 30 black players in the NHL. Also in that group is Devante Smith-Pelly, who is in his first year with the Capitals and skating on the team’s top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Smith-Pelly played 18 games in New Jersey during the 2015-16 season and will look to help the Capitals (28-14-3) keep a comfortable lead over the second-place Devils (23-12-8) in the Metropolitan Division.
“It’s amazing, obviously. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him,” Smith-Pelly said Thursday when asked to reflect on O’Ree. “Just reading up on all the things he had to go through to be there and even when he got there, it’s pretty amazing. I’m happy he’s being recognized, and obviously he’s a guy, like I said, I wouldn’t be here, Bowey wouldn’t be here, a lot of guys wouldn’t be here.”
Bowey is still acclimating himself to the NHL, but he has found a foothold in the Capitals’ lineup alongside veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik. He has 10 assists and has yet to score a goal in 37 games, but there is another thing he would like to check off his list in the coming months: He would like to meet the 83-year-old O’Ree, who was honored in Boston on Wednesday night before the Bruins took on the Canadiens. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh declared Jan. 18, 2018, as “Willie O’Ree Day.”
There is so much Bowey wants to know.
“Obviously I would just thank him,” he said. “I have a lot of questions for him on what it was like to play back in the day, because I know it wasn’t easy. I would just be all ears and listen to what he had to say.”
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