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VIDEO: NHL legend Willie O'Ree hands out Heritage Classic tickets in Vancouver
NHL legend Willie O'Ree was in Vancouver on Tuesday, for B.C.'s H.E.R.O.S. hockey camp. The camps, held across Canada, look to get young people (ages 9-18) involved in hockey, especially kids who might not have the choice.
O'Ree, who in 1958 became the first-ever black player in the NHL with the Boston Bruins, is the ambassador for an NHL program called 'Hockey Is For Everyone'.
O'Ree was also there on behalf of the NHL to hand out 100 tickets to young players, so they can attend the upcoming Tim Hortons' Heritage Classic at BC Place – March 2 between the Vancouver Canucks and the Ottawa Senators.
The tickets were donated on behalf of the NHL and the Canucks For Kids Fund. O'Ree is an ambassador for the National Hockey League's 'Hockey Is For Everyone' development program.
"Hockey Is For Everyone, that means that any boy or girl who wants to play hockey can play," O'Ree said on Tuesday, at Vancouver's Brittania hockey rink. "We will not turn any boy or girl away."
O'Ree is currently involved with 35 'Hockey Is For Everyone' programs, as well as the H.E.R.O.S. programs, throughout North America.
"I travel around and do on-and-off-ice clinics with these boys and girls," O'Ree said. "Just letting them know that there is another sport to play with they want to."
On Thursday, O'Ree answered my questions, over email, after his two hockey camps with H.E.R.O.S. in Vancouver.
Why did you get involved with HEROS hockey and how has your experience been so far?
O'Ree: I had the pleasure and great honour of meeting Norm Flynn, probably about 10 or 12 years ago, and he had just been getting started with his programs. I immediately had a relationship with him because we were thinking along the same lines of trying to introduce more boys and girls to the game of hockey, particularly if they haven't had the chance to play before. I'm very blessed to have the pleasure of meeting him and then being involved with the kids programs. I just had a great time up in Vancouver, we visited two elementary schools and a middle school, had just a fantastic turnout, the principals were very gracious and very happy that we took the time to come out. We had a clinic at the Britannia Hockey Rink that the HEROS put on and I signed some autographs, had some pictures taken and gave them all a hockey card, which they were very happy about.
You obviously had to fight through barriers to play hockey and to make the NHL, so what's it like to help young people across Canada discover and play the game now?
First of all, when I broke in, in 1958 in Montreal, being the first black player to play in the NHL, it really didn't don on me when I first stepped on to the ice, not till later on. The thing is I played in the NHL, only 45 games, but the Bruins organization is just a super organization, I have a special place in my heart for them. After my 21 years playing professional hockey I just felt that I had something to give back to this sport and give back to the community what the sport had given to me over the years that I played. I thought no greater way than trying to help underprivileged kids get into playing hockey and help them get on the ice and skate, and then if they decide to play hockey, help them with their hockey skills.