Duluth, MN (Northland's NewsCenter) --- It was 1958 when Willie O'Ree broke the color barrier in the National Hockey League. He has since been dubbed the "Jackie Robinson" of hockey.
"I experienced racism, prejudice, bigotry, and ignorance," O'Ree said., "from not only fans, but players on the opposition."
O'Ree played a total of 45 games across two seasons with the NHL's Boston Bruins, and Duluth Mayor Don Ness declared April 20 as "Willie O'Ree Day" in the city.
"I just went out and tried to play hockey, tried to represent the hockey club to the best of my ability," O'Ree said. "I said you can't change the color of your skin, and I wouldn't even want to try."
"Just doing what he did has helped players like me," Tampa Bay forward J.T. Brown said, "and the players who came before me and those who are coming after."
"He's part of history, not only the history of sport but also the history of our country," Mayor Ness said. "He's a pioneer on a lot of different fronts, and it displayed a lot of courage at a time when those sorts of things weren't accepted."
Not only has O'Ree paved the way for African-American hockey players, but for all people of color.
Proof of that can be found inside the UMD women's hockey team.
"We named our new captains this spring. Jessica Wong is going to be a senior, and she'll be our first Asian captain ever for the UMD women's hockey team," Bulldogs head coach Shannon Miller said. "That's a really big deal. Our program should be a microcosm of the community."
O'Ree is now the director of youth development for the NHL, with a couple simple messages for young kids.
"Stay in school, and get an education," O'Ree said. "Education is the goal. It's the key. The other thing is to set goals for yourself, and work toward those goals."
O'Ree's visit to the Northland was made possible in part by Community Action Duluth, part of the third annual "Pucks for Poverty" event.