Dear Mr. Willie O’Ree,
Thank you. Those words aren’t enough, but they’re all I have at my disposal within the English language. I could thank you for your contributions to the desegregation and diversification of the National Hockey League. I could thank you for showing us all that 81-year-old men can still work out three times a week when most of us will be doing good to walk by that age. I could thank you for coming to Kansas City on Hockey Weekend in America and spending some time with an ECHL hockey team and the fans that cheer for them. All those things would make for a very nice thank you letter.
However, those are things you’ve been thanked for numerous times throughout your life, I’m sure. They are all incredibly important and very noble things and the thanks that they have generated definitely are deserving of recognition. But, I want to thank you for what you showed all of us that had a chance to be around you and listen to your words this weekend…thank you for reminding all of us that the reason we’re all here is to connect with one another, enjoy each other’s company, find things we share in common with other people, and do things for the greater good of humans and not for personal gain.
As I listened to your life story on Friday night at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, I was humbled as I thought of what I consider “problems” in my life as you matter-of-factly told of things I could never imagine. You were blinded in one eye in a hockey accident and never told anyone, made it all the way to the NHL, broke the color barrier in the NHL, dealt with the verbal assaults and threats of opposing fans, and now perform incredibly fulfilling work to bring hockey to areas of our country where it has never been an option. It would have been so easy, and justified, to give up…yet, you didn’t. “I can’t” simply wasn’t in your vocabulary and if I’ve learned anything in my 35 years on earth, it’s that things aren’t an option unless you allow them to become an option.
I felt like I was listening to the great Buck O’Neil of the Kansas City Monarchs. I heard a few of Mr. O’Neil’s stories before his passing and each time he wouldn’t talk about how many things were working against him and his teammates, but instead about the joy he was able to bring to so many. Mr. O’Neil always delivered stories with a smile, as it was part of his charm; and it made the stories come to life and really made the listener ponder why someone would go through so much just to play a game. With your similar delivery, your story came to life in a way that deserved empathy, but instead, highlighted overcoming obstacles and keeping your personal goals in focus. It makes our petty problems seem even more trivial when we think about the persecution that you went through as you broke into the NHL.
In a world that is so divided by numerous different ideals, beliefs, cultural differences, fears, lack of compassion, bullying, and at times a lack of basic human decency; you show us all that life is about what you do individually between the two dates listed on your headstone. Life is what we choose to make it; not what a president, boss, co-worker, website, congressman, or neighbor tell us it has to be. Your decisions will impact your future. The way you react to the things others say about you or do to you will determine your character. When presented with an opportunity to quit, your decision will determine your courage.
Mr. O’Ree, you were courageous. You are courageous. It takes a strong willed person to endure what you did, but your determination to make your life better and those around you better is what we will all remember from your visit to our little piece of the world this weekend. Thank you for sharing your story, your life, your courage, and your love of hockey with all of us. You are a national treasure and you make those around you better people. In the end, that’s what life is all about.