Iginla carrying on O'Ree's legacy

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:31 AM ET

Jarome Iginla has called Willie O'Ree an idol.

He's also referred to O'Ree -- who recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of breaking the NHL's colour barrier -- as a pioneer.

Iginla is also able to call O'Ree a friend.

"I don't want to speak for who he calls his friends," the Calgary Flames star said with a laugh. "When you meet him, it is inspiring. It was special when he came to our hockey school here in Calgary, that he took the time. He's very busy, does a lot of clinics and things for kids and it was his own time.

"He helped us out and helped me out, as far as learning how to better interact with the kids and helped lead the kids, sending a good message.

"I've gotten to see him over the years, at a couple of clinics and around, and he's always got so much energy. Going back to the school, with the kids, he's got a lot of energy and they really look up to him."

O'Ree will again be lauded during the festivities surrounding this weekend's NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta. Iginla will be on-hand, too, attending the NHL's showcase for the fourth time of his career.

Canadian hockey fans don't often see players in black and white in terms of race. However, south of the border, it's still an issue.

When Iginla took over the scoring race early in the 2001-02 season, the first reaction around the Stampede City was that a Calgary Flames player was leading the league, which hadn't happened since Kent Nilsson did it for a couple of days a generation earlier.

Following up that story down in Southern California, a Los Angeles-based writer pointed out a black player was leading the NHL in scoring, which caught then head coach Greg Gilbert off guard.

"I've never thought of Jarome as a black hockey player," Gilbert mused.

Iginla, though, understands it all too well.

"I knew growing up I was the only black player on my team and was aware of it, that there weren't many in the NHL. I've always been aware of it and proud of it," he said. "I didn't face a lot of adversity because of it, I was very blessed because I didn't, but seeing the comments he faced, it's so surprising to me and disappointing."

During a recent USA Today article on O'Ree, the 72-year-old former Boston Bruin divulged that in the last few years, he received hate mail regarding his work with the NHL's Diversity Program.

Iginla, who'll admit he's faced a few "issues and incidents, not many and never with my own teammates" was blown away by the story.

"You read that stuff and that really surprised me. With all the good he's doing with young kids, not just minorities but kids in general, helping them not just learn the game and enjoy the game, but just learn to set goals and dreams. It's hard to believe he'd still go through that," he said. "In hockey, trash talking is part of it, but I can't imagine what he would have had to listen to, and it wasn't just, 'You suck' which is common, or 'You've lost it,' or 'You're old.' Those are the things players say to each other and his would have been at a different level, so I can't imagine how good his focus would have had to have been and how determined.

"Maybe he even had some good lines, but his play had to speak the loudest."

In Atlanta -- where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born -- Iginla will certainly become a voice for black hockey players.

Despite having grown up in a Edmonton suburb, Iginla is capable of spreading a message to talented athletes, be they from the projects of cities like Philadelphia, Chicago or New York, or upper middle-class kids from the 'burbs.

Sure, we're talking about a big role, but Iginla knows the value of what he can do.

After all, he can bank on his own experience as a youngster.

"It was very important, especially to myself and other young black players growing up seeing (O'Ree)," he said. "Growing up, I didn't know him, but it was important seeing other black players because there weren't many, but players like Grant Fuhr, Claude Vilgrain, Tony McKegney told me it was possible.

"I couldn't tell you how many times I heard, 'There aren't any black players in the NHL, what are your chances?' but I had an answer. I could say, 'What about Grant Fuhr winning Stanley Cups and being an all-star? What about Claude Vilgrain? What about Tony McKegney scoring 30 goals?

"It made me know it was possible. I didn't have to answer, 'You're right. Maybe I can be the first.' He paved the route, and my route was so much easier and a big part was because of his courage."


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