Ice Hockey

The meaning of Willie Urey’s retirement

Editor’s note: With Jacket #22 soaring to the rafters in Boston on Tuesday, Jan. 18, two of his fellow black NHL teammates are reflecting on Willie O’Ree’s lasting impact.

In this game, there are quite a few honors that separate the memorable from the unforgettable.

There is a Stanley Cup. The final recognition of the team.

There is the Hockey Hall of Fame. The ultimate recognition of a career in our sport.

There are jersey retirements. The ultimate acknowledgment of what the player means to the franchise, fan base, and community on and off the ice.

In our opinion, retiring your shirt might be the biggest honor a player can receive. It forms an unbreakable bond between your jersey and every home game your team plays in the NHL. And that’s an honor Willie Urey will get next week, when his shirt is soaring to the rafters at TD Garden.

Seeing the first black player in the NHL to be honored in this way is an opportunity for the hockey community to reflect on all things being “first,” from the hurdles Willie faced to the hope he inspired in so many people who never saw themselves represented. The largest hockey scene.

Obstacles are where we need to start. Because we need to remember how formidable it was.

If you heard Willie talk about his response to the racist insults he heard on the ice – how he didn’t let it bother him, how he “just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine” – you’d only hear part of the story . He speaks of the incredible resilience that has enabled him to keep going.

But let’s think for a moment what this flexibility really means.

It meant years of hearing people in and around the rinks say he was unwanted and unwelcome. It meant using their ignorance as fuel to challenge stereotypes, while trying not to shake off frustration with the fact that these stereotypes exist. This means taking on the burden of social pressure, the stress of daily training, and the focus and commitment it takes to be an elite athlete. This extra weight made every step of Willy’s journey more demanding than the white players took as everyone worked to realize their dream of playing in the NHL.

However, Willy persevered.

We can never fully comprehend what Willie went through in an era when outright racism was common. But we can relate some of our experiences to the same forces that Willy had to contend with, even though these forces now act in indirect ways.

The hockey guys gave us some of our first examples. Although we’ve played in different parts of the world – Canada and France – our memories are the same: seeing kids who don’t look like us talking on the side or behind our backs. Hearing the parents of these kids describe us with narrow-minded assumptions like, “Well, he’s naturally fast.” Hearing other parents question why black kids had an ice time with the kids they thought they belonged with.

In response, we turned to our parents for support. They made it clear that these moments will unfortunately happen, because society has not reached a stage where everyone is treated equally. They remind us of hard work and prove the skeptics wrong. Their words prepared us for what to expect and gave us the motivation to keep going. But on the really tough days, when we needed that extra motivation, we knew we could find it in black players who actually made it to the NHL. We can look at them as role models. We had evidence that people like us can be recognized and appreciated for their contributions at the highest level in professional hockey.

Willie did not have this evidence. All he had was his own dedication and mental strength to move forward, not knowing when or if his dream of making the NHL would be possible.

Somehow, he didn’t hesitate. Which is why he’s ready for his historic call-up to the Boston Bruins.

It is worth considering how Willie’s NHL was first experienced by fans in the stands. Imagine a crowd of whites watching him play in a Bruins jacket. They lived in a time when it was only natural to claim that blacks couldn’t play competitive hockey because their ankles were “too weak” to skate. But there, on the NHL ice, was Willie O’Ree – rivaling the best in the old Montreal Forum. His presence must have forced the people in the crowd to re-evaluate their assumptions. Silently and slowly, some change in their thinking about race and society had to be brought about.

Willy may have known about this, but we bet he didn’t focus on it. Maybe he just wanted to represent the Bruins well and help the team win. This is part of the beauty of its effect. He wasn’t playing hockey to try to change anyone’s mind. All he wanted to do was be himself and play a sport that he loved as much as he could. Meanwhile, by holding him on the ice, he helped everyone who looked like him gain more respect.

This is the story the hockey community needs to tell when we talk about Willie’s 45 games in the NHL.

People sometimes use that statistic – 45 games – to downplay Willy’s legacy and claim he doesn’t deserve to retire his shirt.

The thing is, when they stop counting at 45, they lose the point.

Only forty-five is the basis.

Add up the number of games each black player has played in the NHL. Jobs by Tony McGigney, Grant Faure, Jarom Iginla and Beck Suban. We can review the entire list. And yes, add all the matches played by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Mathieu Joseph.

Without Willie, who knows if any of us would be here?

So, this should be pretty clear: The true measure of Willy’s legacy is not just the number of NHL games he’s played but the door he opened for every variety player that came after him. He could have played one game, in our opinion, and his legacy will continue to be huge.

Furthermore, Willie’s legacy includes the 130,000 children he reached through the Hockey is for Everyone programs, which he helped create in the 1990s. Programs serve underrepresented children across North America by giving them access to hockey and teaching life skills such as confidence, teamwork, and leadership. It should fill the NHL average arena seven times to accommodate all the diverse boys and girls who have benefited from Willie’s work in the community.

Not many people make the choice to give back in such a big way. But then again, Willy’s journey is full of rare choices that changed the course of this game. The most important was definitely Willy’s choice not to give up. At the same time, Willy also needed hockey leaders willing to challenge the idea of ​​a “normal” game. Back in 1958, the Bruins made a bold choice by giving Willy a chance to play despite the risk of a racist backlash. The organization deserves its share of credit for bearing the risks.

Now, 64 years later, Willie joins the most honored name in franchise history as he took his opportunity and used it to contribute to his team, sports and our community.

The world has changed a lot in the past 64 years. However, there is clearly more work to be done to address the causes at the heart of Willy’s story. In hockey, there are more diverse children who need our help to feel supported and empowered. In society, there are racial grievances that continue to affect blacks and other people of color. As the hockey community celebrates Willie’s retirement from Jersey, we should also look at it as a reminder of how important these issues are, how much progress past generations have made and how each of us can sustain progress by committing to being a force for good.

When you think of it this way, Willie’s story will always be bigger than a game of hockey.

But to us, hockey is the reason his story seems so personal.

Every now and then, when we’re on the ice – whether we’re playing or training or taking a penalty kick – we realize how grateful we are to be here together. We have to compete at the highest level in a sport we love, and we can share the experience as guys who have gone through similar things on our way to the league. We had the opportunity to create great memories as NHL players who are both black.

And we know that these memories only exist because Willy opened the gates for us to follow in his footsteps.

On every team and in every city, there are players and fans who have their own reasons to be grateful for Willie Bruins’ jacket. All of them – including us – will be looking proud when #22 joins other icons in the rafters at TD Garden.

It’s an honor to acknowledge Willie for his groundbreaking accomplishments, and it’s also a message that will echo forever: Against impossible odds, Willie Urey left an incredible mark on his franchise and on the entire National Hockey League. We are all better off for that.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Matthew Joseph are fellows at Tampa Bay Lightning. Bellemare in his eighth season in the National Hockey League, and Joseph in his fourth season.


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