Willie O’Ree, who in 1958 became the first black player to feature in the National Hockey League, will have his No 22 jersey retired by the Boston Bruins.

O’Ree, who entered the NHL a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the diversity barrier in baseball, faced racial slurs when he made his debut with the Bruins but paved the way for players of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

“I was at a loss for words. I’m overwhelmed and thrilled about having my Bruins jersey hung up in the rafters,” said 85-year-old O’Ree, who was born in Fredericton, Canada.

“I was a Montreal Canadiens fan in my teens because Toronto and Montreal were the only two teams in the NHL, but when I went to my first Bruins training camp in 1957 I became a Bruins fan. I have the highest respect and admiration for the entire Bruins organisation.”

Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs, said: “Throughout the history of the National Hockey League, there have been very few individuals that have had such a profound impact on the league and its culture than Willie O’Ree.

“After breaking the colour barrier as a Boston Bruin in 1958 and eventually retiring from professional hockey in 1979, Willie became the ultimate ambassador for improving diversity and inclusion within the game of hockey.

“The entire hockey world is forever indebted to Willie for all that he has done, and continues to do, for the sport. We are incredibly proud to retire Willie’s number and cement his legacy as one of Boston’s greatest athletes.”

Transcending the game.#NHLBruins pic.twitter.com/KmyUSEKJvP

O’Ree, who had a long career in the minors, played 45 games in the NHL, scoring four goals with 10 assists. Since 1998, he has worked for the NHL as a Diversity Ambassador.

The Bruins said the 85-year-old O’Ree, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 as part of the “Builder” category, will have his number retired ahead of the team’s game against the New Jersey Devils.

On Monday, the NHL announced that every player in the league will wear a decal on their helmets featuring a picture of O’Ree and the message “celebrating equality.”

The decals will be worn from January 16 through the end of February, which is Black History Month.

Martin Luther King Jr Day falls on January 18 this year, which was the date 63 years ago that O’Ree made his Bruins debut.

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