Ice hockey pioneer helps kids
YOUNGSTOWN -- In one way, Saturday night's boisterous gathering of bocce mavens at Cassese's MVR restaurant was typical Youngstown "Saturday Night Fever" as dozens of participants gathered for a night of excited competition.
Observing the commotion was a former professional athlete whose eyes lit up in amazement as the MVR's competition enveloped the courts behind the Smoky Hollow establishment. While not quite matching the spirit of a high school football game, the atmosphere was charged with friendship, rivalry and anticipation.
Willie O'Ree, once a skater in the National Hockey League, was seeing bocce for the first time. And he was captivated by the thrills of the competitors getting ready for their weekly session of roundball and sand.
Played for Bruins
Most of you have never heard of O'Ree, who played for the Boston Bruins in 1958 and 1961. A native of New Brunswick, O'Ree played professional hockey for 21 seasons, mostly in the minors.
But his story is exceptional -- 11 years after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball, O'Ree became the first African-American to skate in the NHL. Back then, the NHL consisted of just six teams -- the Bruins, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Black Hawks and Detroit Red Wings.
A hockey minor leaguer for 21 seasons, O'Ree didn't become rich off the sport. In the era of his prime, the only hockey players earning considerable salaries had last names of Howe, Beliveau, Plante and Richard. The rest had comfortable lives, but weren't affluent.
When the NHL expanded to 12 teams in 1967, O'Ree found an opportunity to keep his career going in the minor leagues. He moved to San Diego that year when the Los Angeles franchise in the Western Hockey League relocated 100 miles south after the Kings were born. O'Ree has been a San Diego resident ever since.
O'Ree, the WHL's leading scorer in 1964-65 and 1968-69, was in Youngstown over the weekend as a guest hockey ambassador of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Almost 25 years after he retired from hockey, O'Ree is the NHL's spokesman for its diversity program whose goal is to spread hockey to those who don't know a puck from a blue line, an offsides call from a hat trick.
So how did O'Ree end up dining at the MVR? He was the guest of Marc Gregory, a Cardinal Mooney High graduate who is the Blue Jackets' marketing/broadcasting director and who knew the perfect place to show O'Ree about life in Youngstown.
As O'Ree cheered on the bocce players (probably none of whom knew he was a retired professional athlete), they accepted his support, offering to explain to "Dad" why a certain throw was attempted and their game secrets.
As Gregory said to O'Ree, bocce is the closest thing to the Canadian game of curling he would find in this part of Ohio.
Sunday, the Blue Jackets took over a small corner of Boardman Park to set up a street hockey rink as part of the Family Fun Festival in the park.
NHL "Breakaway Tour"
The NHL's team "Breakaway Tour" had two purposes: expose hockey to children who maybe have never had a chance to shoot with a real stick and to present 27 sets of equipment to the Youngstown Borderhawks youth hockey team to help create a girls team.
As anyone whose child has shown an interest in ice hockey knows, it costs a huge chunk of change to participate in the sport. Equipment is expensive and the ice time rentals add up. By donating equipment to reach children who might never be exposed to the sport, the Blue Jackets and the NHL hope to turn on younger fans.
O'Ree was in his element Sunday afternoon, conducting clinics for dozens of youngsters in the makeshift rink. As one observer noted, he sure has a lot of patience for someone with his professional athletic experiences.
Chances are, most of the families looking on had no idea who the African-American directing the hockey action was. But it's safe to say most of the youngsters walked away with a great appreciation of hockey.
XTom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write to him at email@example.com.