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‘I am thrilled to be a part of the Bruins forever’: Willie O’Ree’s No. 22 retired, raised to TD Garden rafters

Willie O’Ree's No. 22 was raised to the TD Garden rafters prior to the Bruins' game against the Hurricanes.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Bruins fans always want more, be it the next Cam Neely 50-goal scorer, the next Bobby Orr generational defenseman, and of course that next Cup.

Here in the Hub, like most North American cities, we tend to measure our satisfaction, even our self-esteem, by the championship and by the size of the duck boat parade. Too often we forget or ignore the moments and tests that define our champions.

Well, we know for certain that there will not be a next Willie O’Ree, whose moment in the spotlight truly arrived at the Garden Tuesday night, 60-plus years after the defining moment in his playing career all but faded away into Bruins and NHL history.

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O’Ree, now 86, formally took his bow — albeit virtually, from his home in San Diego — as the first Black man to play in the NHL when the No. 22 he wore as a Bruin in the 1950s and ‘60s, was hoisted to the rafters shortly after 7 p.m., prior to the Bruins-Hurricanes matchup.

Prior to Tuesday's game, the Bruins held a ceremony to retire the No. 22 of former player Willie O’Ree, the first Black man to play in the NHL. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

O’Ree’s sweater number is now rightly nestled in perpetuity between Rick Middleton (16) and Terry O’Reilly (24), both of whom, by the way, also shaped their Boston legacies without getting their name on the Stanley Cup. Fitting that all three should be positioned to reside together forever.

The Canadian-born O’Ree will be remembered here not for the content of his game, nor for his few NHL career goals (4) and assists (10), but rather for the content of his character that ultimately brought him back to hockey to help make it a world more accepting of those not automatically handed a stick and roster spot by virtue of the whiteness of their skin.

“He’s made the game of hockey a better place,” noted Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron.

With O’Ree watching in San Diego, wife and daughter at his side, ex-Bruins winger Anson Carter was charged with helping to carry the large No. 22 banner to the ice surface and then slowly pulling on the rope to position it into place in the rafters.

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“I am honored to have had the pleasure of playing before you,” O’Ree said moments prior Carter doing the honors. “Thank you for your tremendous love and support. This is an unforgettable day. I am overwhelmed and thrilled to be a part of the Bruins forever.”

The Bruins announced a year ago that O’Ree’s number would be retired. Had it not been for COVID-19 and the extra threat it poses for seniors, he would have made the cross-country trek to be on Causeway Street. His time here was brief, but he loved most of it, and his infectious joy has been obvious in his many trips here in recent years in his role as he NHL’s good-will ambassador.

Beyond O’Ree’s obvious gratitude and reserved manner, no one in the house looked happier than Brad Marchand. Arena cameras repeatedly showed the veteran winger standing behind the bench, bobbing side to side on his skates, his smile big and bright enough to light the entire West End.

During warmups all the players from both teams wore the No. 22 to honor Willie O’Ree, who had his number retired Tuesday night at TD Garden.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

O’Ree finally broke down the league’s invisible black door 64 years ago, Jan. 18, 1958, when the Bruins summoned him from the minor league Quebec Aces — where he once played with Canadiens legend-to-be Jean Beliveau — to play in a home-and-home with the Habs.

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“Coming up and breaking the color barrier was just fantastic,” O’Ree recalled later Tuesday night. “I didn’t realize I broke the color barrier until I read it in the paper the next day.”

O’Ree was 23, strong, lightning fast, and blind in one eye. His eye injured as a teenager while playing junior hockey, he told only his trusted brother Richard and sister Betty, for fear that others too easily would use it as yet one more excuse to keep him from his dream. He didn’t need more “buts” heaved on to the pile of doubt and discrimination.

“I told myself, ‘Willie, forget about what you can’t see and focus on what you can see.’ ” he recalled Tuesday night.

O’Ree’s long playing career in the minor pros, most of it in the Western League, came to an end in the spring of 1979 with the San Diego Hawks. He was 43 at the time, 18 years removed from his last NHL twirl with the 1960-61 Bruins.

Out of hockey entirely, he spent upward of the next 20 years in a variety of jobs, the longest of which was working security at the iconic Hotel del Coronado in San Diego.

O’Ree was still on that hotel job in the late ’90s when Bryant McBride, then in the NHL front office, knocked unannounced on the front door of his home. McBride, with an assist to Lou Vairo, ex-coach of Team USA, was the one who recovered O’Ree’s story, helped bring it to light in the league’s Manhattan office.

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With commissioner Gary Bettman’s urging, McBride was in San Diego that day to measure O’Ree’s interest in working for the league, to tell his story, ultimately fill a role to encourage kids of color, often in innercity neighborhoods, to get in the game.

“He was cautious, and I think understandably,” said McBride, who is both Black and a fellow Canadian, having grown up playing hockey in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. “I mean, he’s been out of hockey, what, nearly two decades? And now some guy he doesn’t know from New York is asking if he’d be interested in working for the league. That’s a whole lot to process.”

The No. 22 of former player Willie O’Ree will always be in the rafters of TD Garden.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Now nearly a quarter-century into preaching the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” gospel, O’Ree has carried his inclusion message to some 130,000 kids across North America. He was preaching it again the night his number went to the rooftop.

“I will never forget how my teammates in the Bruins locker room accepted me as one of their own,” he said, recalling his NHL debut 64 years earlier. “This was a time when some of the fans and opposing players were not ready to see a Black man in the NHL.”

The words of his late brother, Richard, still resonated a lifetime later.

“He used to say, ‘Willie, focus on the goals you set for yourself. Work hard. And Stay positive,’ “ O’Ree recalled. “This is what I tried to do every time I put on the Bruins jersey.”

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There won’t be a next Willie O’Ree. He is the O’Riginal, the first, and at long last remembered.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com.