PHILADELPHIA — The octogenarian in the fedora looked on as the young hockey players in jerseys bearing his name zipped past on the ice. He waited for a break in the action and then summoned 12-year-old Charles Finley IV over to the bench area.
“Your stick’s too long,” he told Charles. “It shouldn’t go above your nose. That’s going to affect your skating and balance. And you can’t have that.”
The stick was whisked back to the locker room for adjustments.
Nearly 60 years after he became the first black player to skate in the National Hockey League, Willie O’Ree is working to make sure that children of all colors have opportunities to learn and excel at the sport. O’Ree, the director of youth development for the NHL’s diversity task force, traveled to Philadelphia last month for an eponymously named skills weekend, an annual event that brings together dozens of middle school and high school players from urban areas across North America.
“I never had anything like this when I was growing up,” O’Ree said while watching the event’s morning skate. “I didn’t see many players who looked like me playing hockey.”
In an effort to increase the number of youth hockey players, the NHL hired O’Ree in 1998 and made him the face of its Hockey is for Everyone initiative, which since its inception has introduced 45,000 boys and girls to the sport and subsidized the cost of equipment, ice time and travel.
The league doesn’t keep statistics on the race of program participants, but many of the 36 affiliates that partner with the NHL have a high percentage of minority players. The D.C.-based Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club is one of the oldest clubs in the diversity program.
Jim Britt, chief operating officer of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, the host of this year’s Willie O’Ree Skills Weekend, said his foundation’s goal is to reflect the makeup of the Philadelphia area. Of the 3,000 children involved in its hockey programs, roughly 75 percent are minorities, Britt said.
In Rochester, N.Y, where young Charles Finley is a defenseman in the Genesee Valley Youth Hockey Club, dozens of African American children have been introduced to the sport, a group that includes Charles’s five brothers and Woody Hudson, who plays hockey at St. Lawrence University.
“The program gave my sons and a lot of other kids a chance to play hockey,” said Charles Finley III, a 40-year-old Rochester native. “When I was young myself, my cousins and I wanted to play hockey with the white kids at the municipal outdoor rink, but they didn’t let us play. They would say, ‘Y’all got the basketball courts. We got the hockey rink.’ ”
Finley and his cousins saved up money for hockey gear and soon became skilled enough to where the white kids in the neighborhood invited them to play. Today, Finley, who is a volunteer coach in Rochester, gets to watch his sons and other children of color play organized hockey. Finley believes the program is going to produce future pros.
Nearly half of the 73 black players ever to skate in the NHL have entered the league since 2000, according to statistics compiled by the league. At the start of the 2015-16 season, 17 black players were on NHL rosters, only about 3 percent of the league’s total number. By comparison, about 25 percent of NHL players are U.S.-born.
To date, one NHL player, Gerald Coleman, who briefly appeared in goal for the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2005-06 season, came through the Hockey is for Everyone program.
O’Ree’s involvement in the program sends a powerful message to the young players, said Ken Martin, the NHL’s vice president for community and diversity programs. “The one thing that kids really look for is role models, so the ability to have a living and active role model is a great opportunity,” Martin said.
In January, several of hockey’s black pioneers, including O’Ree, came together in Washington for a screening of “Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future,” a documentary about the black experience in hockey.
“Willie O’Ree is the NHL’s Jackie Robinson,” the film’s director, Kwame Damon Mason, said. “One of the reasons I made the film is because most people who have heard of Willie O’Ree don’t know his story or the stories of the black players who came after him.”
Born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, a mill town of about 35,000 with only a handful of black families, O’Ree gravitated toward hockey, developing his skills on a back-yard ice rink and skating to school during the long winter months. He grew up idolizing hockey greats Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe and playing both hockey and baseball.
In his last year of junior hockey, O’Ree was struck in the face by a puck, leaving him largely blind in his right eye. He hid his disability from everyone but his family until his playing career ended and he had the eye removed.
For a time, O’Ree thought his future might be in baseball. In 1956, the Milwaukee Braves invited him to a tryout camp in Georgia. He enjoyed the opportunity to compete for a major league spot, but the realities of the segregated South made him yearn for Canada.
Back on the rink for the 1956-57 season, O’Ree’s play at left wing for the Quebec Aces got the attention of the team’s parent club in Boston. When a Bruins left winger was injured the following season, O’Ree was the next man up.
On Jan. 18, 1958, a year and a half before the Boston Red Sox became the last Major League Baseball team to field a black player, the Bruins made history as the first of the six original NHL teams to integrate. It happened with little fanfare. O’Ree himself didn’t even realize the significance of the moment.
“I knew people were looking at me, but I didn’t know until the next morning when I read it in the paper that I had broken the color barrier,” O’Ree said. “It wasn’t something I thought about or that people talked about. I was busy trying to do my job.”
O’Ree played just two games, both on the road against the Montreal Canadiens, before the Bruins sent him back to the minors. He didn’t return to the NHL until 1960, when he appeared in 43 games, notching four goals and 10 assists for Boston. Almost every time on the ice, O’Ree heard invective from opposing players and fans. An ugly incident took place one night at Chicago Stadium when a Blackhawks player hit O’Ree in the face with the butt end of his stick, knocking out two teeth. The act was accompanied by a racial slur and a brawl that resulted in O’Ree leaving the building with a police escort.
“I’m sure there were people who weren’t happy I was in the league, but I wasn’t going to quit,” O’Ree said. “It was my dream to play in the NHL, and the best revenge was to keep playing.”
Near the end of the 1961 season, the Bruins traded him to a club in the Canadiens’ farm system. He never played another NHL game, knocking around the minors for 15 seasons and playing almost exclusively for teams in Los Angeles and San Diego, the city he’s called home since 1967. He retired from the game at age 43.
O’Ree’s entrance into the NHL didn’t usher in an era of integration. The league didn’t see its second black player until 13 years after he played his last NHL game, when the expansion Washington Capitals made Mike Marson the 19th overall pick of the amateur draft.
As the Capitals struggled through one of the worst stretches for any team in league history, the highly touted Marson found it difficult to focus on hockey.
“I got death threats on a daily basis,” Marson said in an interview. “There would be letters cut out of a magazine and stuck onto paper. I’d get them at the Capital Centre but also at my home. I started thinking to myself, ‘Is this what I signed on for? This is crazy.’ ”
Marson, who played six seasons in the NHL, left hockey behind after retirement, returning to Toronto, where he has worked as a city bus driver for three decades. Only in the past few years has he reconnected with the Capitals.
O’Ree wanted to stay involved in the game after his playing days ended, but as the years went by, his history-making turn seemed to drift into irrelevance. Finally, on the 40th anniversary of O’Ree’s NHL debut, the league hired him to work on youth development. That same year, the Canadian government named him to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
In his work for the NHL, O’Ree does more than a hundred speaking engagements and clinics a year in the United States and Canada. His hope, one that the NHL shares, is that more kids in areas where hockey is traditionally less popular will at least sample the sport.
Eight years ago, Kasier Archie, then 11, and his preteen friends were playing basketball on a Philadelphia playground when a representative of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation approached and asked if any in the group were interested in participating in an after-school hockey program. The invitation was met mostly with blank stares, but Archie decided to give it a try.
“I had never touched ice before,” said Archie, now 19 and a club player at Drexel University. “It took me five years to really get how to skate and play. My friends were, like, ‘Are you really playing hockey?’ I didn’t think I’d ever play hockey, either, but I loved it.”
The emergence of high-profile black NHL players such as P.K. Subban of the Canadiens , Joel Ward of the San Jose Sharks and Evander Kane of the Buffalo Sabres is helping with youth recruitment, program officials say. But an informal survey of the boys and girls who participated in the Philadelphia event suggests that position and team affiliation are as important to the young players as skin color.
Charles Finley’s favorite players are Subban and Mike Weber of the Capitals, a white U.S.-born defenseman who until recently played for the Sabres.
Goalie Essence Wyse, 11, who along with her twin sister, Ebony, plays in the Columbus, Ohio, Ice Hockey Club program, has a life-size poster of Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury in her bedroom.
In Philadelphia, O’Ree spent time with the young players off the ice, quizzing them on the weight of a puck and the dimensions of a net and signing their jerseys. He’s proud of the role he played in the sport’s history. But that’s in the past, he said. It’s the future that most excites him.
“What I’m doing doesn’t feel like work,” he said. “I see kids doing things on the ice and out in the world that they didn’t think were possible. It’s going to impact the future of the game.”