In an effort to diversify the NHL among American players, the NHL hired O'Ree as their diversity ambassador, a job that Willie has worked many long and hard hours on. O'Ree is quite recognized in the hockey community for the role he continues to play in exposing youth to the game, and the general NHL fan-base ought to give the guy a bit more appreciation, in my not-so-humble opinion. While the NHL works hard to raise ticket prices and squeeze every little penny out of us who watch the game, few in the NHL's head offices seem to want to actually grow the game at a grassroots level.
The Boston Globe has a great in-depth feature of O'Ree's efforts, and notes that the NHL is still very much 'white bread':
According to the NHL, O'Ree has exposed more than 40,000 kids to the sport since he began working for the league in 1996. When he meets them, generally at schools or clinics or camps, O'Ree always asks of them one thing: to give the game a chance. "If you don't like it," he tells them, "you can walk away." The odds are long that any of the kids he meets will follow in O'Ree's footsteps, but they're particularly long for the black kids. It took 41 years for a black player to appear in an NHL game, and after O'Ree did so, another 16 years passed before the next one made it. In the 90-year history of the league, there have only been 40 black players; 14 of those filled NHL roster spots during the 2006-07 season, comprising about 2 percent of the league's makeup.
While black kids are not as likely to face slurs and abuse in today's environment, the cost of the game would prohibit many of them from ever getting to experience the game. Cost has always been an issue for anyone looking to get their kids into hockey, and it's something the NHL ought to look at more. It's not as if there aren't talented kids who don't want to play, but their parents will definitely choose soccer, basketball, baseball, or football, as those sports cost drastically less than ice hockey.
Previously on FanHouse:
Everybody Hates Chris, but Loves Willie.