Sens pay homage to O'Ree

DON BRENNAN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:51 AM ET

Racism is not a problem in the NHL, as far as Ray Emery can tell.

Certainly there is nothing near the prejudices and slurs Willie O'Ree had to endure when he integrated the league 50 years today.

"I haven't encountered it, definitely not in the last couple of years," Emery, one of 12 black players in the NHL, said yesterday. "It hasn't come up with me in a long time, and when it has it really hasn't been that big of a deal. I don't think you can look past it too often, you can't downplay it, but at the same time it's a competitive sport and sometimes things are said and done and whatever.

"I'm sure I've said some things that aren't too politically correct too. As long as people are mindful of it, I think there's a lot of respect out there now."

RESPECT

There is also a lot of respect for O'Ree and what he has done for the game, both in the past and present.

Blind in his right eye after being hit by a slapshot during his last year of junior, O'Ree fought through all the adversity to play two games for the Boston Bruins in the 1958-59 season and then, after a minor-league stint that included time with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens, another 43 games with the B's in 1960-61.

His playing days finally ended with the San Diego Hawks in 1978-79, but O'Ree has resurfaced in the NHL.

At age 72, he is the director of youth development for the diversity task force, conducting about a dozen clinics as well as visiting schools and clubs while travelling some 80,000 miles a year.

The league is recognizing his contributions this week, as has his hometown of Fredericton, N.B., where a rink has been built to name after O'Ree.

'SPREADING THE GAME'

"He was a ground-breaking player and has done maybe more since he was the first African descent player, or player of colour to play," said Emery, who has met O'Ree a couple of times.

"Any time you kind of go somewhere no one has gone before, and help make strides in a sport, you should be recognized. Since he's played, he's done even more, working with kids and spreading the game across North America.

"Obviously, he was a pioneer," Senators goaltending coach Eli Wilson, who is also black, said of O'Ree. "I've had the chance to meet him along the way, to sit down and talk about his experiences. Obviously the world has changed a lot since he was a player. Guys don't face what he has faced. It's good. It's not unusual to see a black hockey player in minor hockey, junior and the NHL. There are three players in our organization, two in (Binghamton), one here, one coach. It's not like one in 200, like there was one time. It's nice to see more and more black guys involved."


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