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NHL's O'Ree encourages teens to follow dreams

Willie O'Ree is no slouch when it comes to giving back to the game of hockey.

At 76, O'Ree -- the first black player in the National Hockey League -- has the enthusiasm and spunk of a teenager.

That was clear Saturday during his talk to 51 youth hockey players from around the United States and Canada, who laced up their skates at the Bud Bakewell Rink in Riverside. O'Ree spearheaded a hockey skills clinic, coordinated through the NHL, for economically disadvantaged kids who otherwise would not be able to play hockey.

O'Ree, a left winger for the Boston Bruins who broke the NHL's race barrier in January 1958, now shares his knowledge and personal drive with boys and girls ages 13 to 16 through the NHL Diversity Program.

O'Ree's 21-year career in professional hockey -- including 45 games in the NHL -- and the distinction of being the first black to play in the league are big talking points. But for the teens decked out in hockey gear and doing drills on the ice, the retired player meant much more than that.

O'Ree, the NHL's director of youth development and hockey ambassador for NHL Diversity, told the teens he had great ambitions and dreams and that he fought hard to achieve them in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

O'Ree said he never gave up his goal of playing professional hockey, even after losing sight in his right eye at age 19. O'Ree, who noted that hockey is still dominated by white players, said an older brother offered this advice: "Always be proud of who you are. You can't change the color of your skin and don't even try. Just go out and do the best you can."

"I had the skills of what it took at the time, and that's what kept me going," O'Ree said.

It was quiet on the ice as the players listened to his story.

At age 14, O'Ree -- a native of Fredericton, New Brunswick -- decided he wanted to be a professional hockey player. He played organized hockey beginning at 5 and left home at 17 to play junior hockey.

That dream nearly fell apart in 1954, when in his last year of junior hockey in Guelph, Ont., a puck ricocheted off a stick and struck him in the right eye.

While he was in the hospital, O'Ree recalled, the doctor told him, "You'll be blind in your right eye and never play hockey again."

"[The doctor] didn't know the dreams and goals I'd set for myself. I was going to prove him wrong," O'Ree told his audience. "I couldn't accept the fact that the doctor told me I couldn't play hockey again."

O'Ree set out to disprove the prediction. Within two weeks of losing 97 percent of the vision in his right eye, he returned to the ice. He remembers how hard it was at first.

Since he played left wing, O'Ree had to cock his head to compensate for the lost vision. But he persevered, and he played with the Boston Bruins in 1958, 1960 and 1961.

"I told myself, 'Willie, forget about what you can't see and focus on what you can see,' " O'Ree said. "When you want to do something, and you feel strongly about it in your heart, you can make it happen."

"You can do whatever you set your mind to," he told the young players. "Set goals for yourself. There is no substitute for hard work."

O'Ree's story and advice resonated with 16-year-old C.J. Diaz, of Camden, N.J., who attended the clinic. He has played for three years.

"It's pretty cool how he told us he was blind in his right eye and how an injury can't really stop you from playing hockey in life," C.J. said. "Hockey was never on my mind until a cousin took me to a rink, and I became hooked on it. Hockey keeps me focused on my school work and life."

Malik Walker, 14, of Calgary, Ont., who is a junior mentor on his team, said hockey has helped him stay out of trouble at school and control his anger.

"[O'Ree] is teaching us not to give up and always stay with it, not matter how hard it gets," Malik said.

O'Ree, who also speaks at more than 100 schools each year, is still active on the ice with youth players, but he stayed off the ice Saturday while recovering from recent knee replacements and an ankle fusion.

"Education is the key that will open up doors of opportunities for these boys and girls," O'Ree said during a break in the clinic. "They can't go anywhere without an education."

"We offer kids the chance to play," he said. "Ninety percent of it is getting them on the ice. Once they're on the ice, you've got them hooked. The more rinks and programs there are -- we're opening doors for inner-city kids to play."

email: krobinson@buffnews.com