Last night, the Jackie Robinson of ice hockey joined us as a guest on The MSG Hockey Show.
Willie O’Ree was the first black player to compete in the NHL, lacing them up for the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958 (the Bruins shut out the Montreal Canadians 3-0, in Montreal that night, by the way). He paved a new path, inspiring generations of aspiring hockey players to pursue their dreams of reaching the big show.
Willie O'Ree, the first black player in the history of the NHL, is given a standing ovation from The Garden faithful during the Rangers-Ducks game.
My co-host Anson Carter said, “without Willie O’Ree, there is no Anson Carter.”
P.K. Subban said on Wednesday night, “Willie not only means a lot to me, but a lot to the game of hockey.”
He has certainly earned this place in sports history.
Beyond that, O’Ree is inspiring for a few other reasons: take the fact that he is still working at the age of 81, traveling across the country as the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and Diversity Ambassador. He gives talks in schools, helps out with youth hockey programs and grants many interviews, including ours:
Willie O'Ree, the NHL's first black player, discusses his role as the league's diversity ambassador, his first game with the Bruins and being a hockey pioneer.
But on the night he was with us there was one thing, one very small detail, that I noticed O’Ree do all night that really stuck with me.
Every time someone came to introduce themselves, he would stand up, shake their hand, look them in the eye and smile.
You might be thinking, “Yeah, so? That’s pretty standard manners.” You might already do this. Maybe you’re younger and don’t think twice about a minor physical motion that takes a total of 1.5 seconds to complete. And you might be right. But let’s throw in some other factors.
To me, if you’re over the age of 60, you’ve spent enough time on this earth to get a pass when it comes to having to go through the effort of getting up to shake someone’s hand and then having to sit down again. You’re not being rude if you extend your hand from a sitting position. You’ve met hundreds of people in your lifetime, it’s cool. Add 21 years to that.
Now let’s include decades of physical hockey at the most competitive levels (and whatever lifelong injuries and pains that may bring), and you have someone that might feel in the very best case a moderate discomfort in the knees, back and hips every time they get up from a chair.
Then, let’s factor in the fact that he is an athlete with cultural significance, so many people in any given room will want to meet him. At our MSG Networks studios, for example, I counted at least 10 people who came up to him (myself included), while he was sitting down in the green room, to shake his hand. He got up every single time. Smile on his face. No complaints. Not even a groan.
Add it all up, and you have a superbly impressive trait.
“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen,” said John Wooden.
This detail might be small to some, but it left a big impression on me.