Hockey Pioneer Still Offering Tips For Youth

By Eleanor Chute
Updated: November 21, 2007

PITTSBURGH — Chase Felton, a seventh-grader at Wilkinsburg Middle School, said he’s held a hockey stick before, but he must not have been doing it right.

His instruction came Saturday on a gym floor from an ice hockey legend, Willie O’Ree, the first black man to play in the National Hockey League.

Now, Chase knows not to put both hands at the top of the stick and to keep his head up. And he has an autographed sports card from the man who 50 years ago this coming Jan. 18 donned a Boston Bruins uniform and skated onto the ice in a game against the Montreal Canadiens.

Mr. O’Ree, now NHL director of youth development and ambassador for NHL diversity, was in Pittsburgh last weekend to play hockey with youths on a gym floor in the Hill District and ice hockey on the ice with the Hockey in the Hood program at Robert Morris University Island Sports Center on Neville Island.

Hockey in the Hood, which the Pittsburgh Penguins help to sponsor, is one of 39 NHL diversity programs.

Many of the couple of dozen people who came to the session at Ammon Recreation center in the Hill District were from public-housing communities.

George Germany, youth and wellness supervisor of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, said the authority wants to broaden the children’s horizons.

“It’s a whole other world,” said Gail Fenton, president of the Bedford Dwellings community and Chase’s grandmother, who noted the Penguins donated new hockey equipment that was used in the gym.

Mr. O’Ree told the children to reach high and set goals.

“When I was 14, I decided I wanted to become a professional hockey player,” Mr. O’Ree said later.

Mr. O’Ree, who grew up in New Brunswick, Canada, went on to school in Quebec, where he played hockey for two years, was scouted and went pro.

But to do that, he had to overcome adversity. A hockey puck struck his right eye, costing him 97 percent of his vision. But he told only two confidantes, and the hockey league at that time did not test vision.

“Everybody thought I had recovered,” said Mr. O’Ree.

He said he played for 21 years without his teammates or the public knowing.

Since 1998, Mr. O’Ree has been working to promote diversity in the NHL.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of his first NHL appearance, the league has various local and national events planned, including some focusing on an initiative called “Hockey is for Everyone.”

At the Hockey in the Hood session, the children already knew Mr. O’Ree’s place in history, said Howard Smith, chief program director and head coach of Hockey in the Hood.

Mr. Smith had assigned them homework before the legend’s arrival.

“It was just overwhelming,” said Mr. Smith. “They listened to the instruction. It was very intense.”

Hockey in the Hood, now in its eighth season, provides equipment and instruction free to Pittsburgh children from age 3 to 18. Parents must transport their children and pay $35 a year to join USA Hockey. Two of its alumni are playing club hockey for California University of Pennsylvania.