Willie O’Ree had a tremendous impact on the game of hockey, and the San Diego Gulls made sure to recognize that Friday night.
O’Ree became the first African-American to play in the NHL when he debuted for the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens. He played in a total of 45 games for Boston before going on to have an extensive minor league career that included seven seasons with the Gulls in the Western Hockey League.
On Friday night, the day after O’Ree’s 80th birthday, San Diego honored the Canada native by hosting “Willie O’Ree Night,” at Valley View Casino Center.
The team retired O’Ree’s No. 20 Gulls jersey by raising it to the rafters during San Diego’s game against the Bakersfield Condors. O’Ree also participated in a ceremonial puck drop to kick things off.
At O’Ree’s request, Gulls players will continue to wear his No. 20 jersey in the future.
The Gulls also are celebrating their first season playing in the American Hockey League after making the jump from the WHL.
“I am thrilled to celebrate my 80th birthday with the new San Diego Gulls and hockey fans in San Diego,” O’Ree said in a statement before the game. “I’m proud and thankful that the club has chosen to honor me during its inaugural AHL season. This organization has proven time and again its commitment to becoming deeply ingrained in this community, including and beyond the 34 home game dates.”
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