Inside the Flyers: How Willie O'Ree helped Wayne Simmonds believe in himself

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Wayne Simmonds (right)

Wayne Simmonds has blossomed into one of the league's most consistent right wingers, but if it wasn't for a trailblazer named Willie O'Ree, the Flyers forward might never have dreamed of reaching the NHL.

O'Ree, who in 1958 became the NHL's first black player, made Simmonds believe at a young age that playing pro hockey was a possibility.

"He had an effect on every single player of color coming into this league," Simmonds said before a recent game. "Without him, we wouldn't even be in this league . . . so there's a lot of respect I have for Mr. O'Ree. He's the reason I'm here."

The subject of O'Ree's influence came up recently because he was in Philadelphia, where the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation hosted the Willie O'Ree Skills Weekend as part of the Hockey Is for Everyone program. O'Ree, who serves as the NHL's director of youth development and ambassador for diversity, also attended a Flyers game and visited the players at a practice.

O'Ree, 80, a modest, low-key sort, downplayed his first game with the Boston Bruins. As incredible as it sounds, he said that, at the time, he didn't realize he was the first black player to reach the NHL.

"I was just No. 22, skating around the ice with a Boston Bruins jersey on," he said.

"He was just immersed in hockey and not worried about anything else," Simmonds said. "You can tell that from talking to him today."

In the United States, virtually everyone knows the legacy of Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's modern color barrier in 1947 and became an American icon.

In Canada, where hockey is king, O'Ree commands the same amount of respect.

"He is my Jackie Robinson," Simmonds said.

Unlike Robinson, O'Ree wasn't an all-star and he had only a short stint in the NHL. But like Robinson, he knocked down barriers with dignity and class.

When O'Ree broke into the league as a speedy winger, the NHL consisted of just six teams: Boston: Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, and the New York Rangers.

"It wasn't rough until I came to the States," he said. "Being the only black player in the league, I was exposed to racial slurs and remarks. But I just let it go in one ear and out the other. Thanks to my older brother - who was not only my brother and my friend, but he taught me a lot about the game that I needed to know - and he said, 'Willie, the names will never hurt you. Just go out and play your game. If the fans and the players on the opposition can't accept you for the individual that you are, it's just their tough luck.' "

O'Ree, who said he never received racist remarks from Boston fans, added that "it got easier, but it was rough in the beginning. But I had set my goal and stayed focused in what I wanted to do."

Simmonds, 27, said he has been aware of O'Ree since he started playing hockey at age 6.

"I remember doing projects in school on Willie O'Ree," Simmonds said. "I wanted to know as much as I could about him. I'm a black hockey player and you have to know your roots. You have to know where you came from before you go anywhere else."

After O'Ree entered the league, it wasn't until 16 years later, in 1974, that another African American played in the NHL. Only 74 blacks have played in the NHL in the 58 years since O'Ree's first game.

Part of the reason for the slow progress: Canadians dominate the NHL, and blacks compose only about 3 percent of Canada's population. Today, there are 18 blacks out of 974 players in the league. All are indebted to O'Ree, who, despite being blind in his right eye because a puck shattered his retina in juniors, played professional hockey for 21 years, including parts of two NHL seasons.

"It gives me a nice feeling to know I had the opportunity to open doors and break down barriers," said O'Ree, who met Robinson twice and said he made a "big impact" on him.

As for Simmonds, he went into the weekend with 163 career goals, the fifth-highest total in NHL history among black players, behind only Jarome Iginla (608), Tony McKegney (320), Dirk Graham (219), and Anson Carter (202).

Simmonds, a physical player who is one of the league's best power forwards, has averaged nearly 30 goals per season in the last three years, so he continues to climb on the list, continues to build his own impressive legacy.

Once upon a time, O'Ree inspired thousands of black players to dream the dream. More than a half-century later, Simmonds is doing likewise.

scarchidi@phillynews.com

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