During the intermission of the Atlantic versus Metro match at the 2018 NHL All-Star Game, the Tampa Bay Lightning organization awarded Willie O’Ree with the Lightning Foundation’s Community Hero grant. This award is given by the Lightning organization during every single home game to a deserving member of the Tampa Bay community.
Although O’Ree is not a resident of Tampa Bay, this award was given in honor of his service to the game of hockey, awarding him for the perseverance to break into an all-white sport as the very first black player in 1958, playing for the Boston Bruins.
Stanley Cup of Chowder recently wrote an excellent profile of how hard he had to fight to play the game he loved, and made a great case for the league to further honor him by inducting him into the Hockey Hall of fame:
O’Ree had to endure racial slurs, cheap shots, and an unwelcoming culture to reach his dream of playing in the NHL. By the time he got the call in 1958 he had lost virtually all of the vision in his right eye after taking a puck to the face. He managed to keep the injury a secret.
Since 1998, O’Ree has actively worked in an official capacity to grow the game as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador. He has travelled the country, encouraging and inspiring kids to play. The NHL says he has “helped the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative introduce more than 85,000 boys and girls to unique hockey experiences.” His favorite phrase “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right” is the centerpiece of a mural unveiled in his honor on Wednesday.
O’Ree will give $25,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of Tampa Bay, and donate $75,000 to the Hockey Is for Everyone (HIFE) initiative. According to the official press release:
A portion of the Community Hero funding will go towards establishing the first official Hockey is For Everyone program in Tampa Bay. This new program will provide youngsters from diverse backgrounds throughout the community an opportunity to play hockey while instilling core values of the game including teamwork, respect, dedication and inclusion.
In addition to establishing this new HIFE program, the balance of the funding will be used to support the growth and sustainability of dozens of existing non-profit HIFE programs throughout North America to help underprivileged, marginalized and disadvantaged children build confidence, character and life skills.
Although the Bolts can no longer count forward JT Brown as part of its lineup, the spirit of his outreach lives on in Tampa Bay, and I know he’d be proud of this moment.
Mr. Jeff Vinik created the Lightning Community Hero program in the 2011-2012 season, and has given 295 grants in this span of time, totaling $14.85 million in donations to 400 different nonprofit organizations in the Tampa Bay area.