Many people know Willie O’Ree as the first black NHL player but did you know he was a very accomplished minor league forward? For those of us who grew up in San Diego with hockey in our blood, we were lucky to have O’Ree as our most popular player when the San Diego Gulls played in the Western Hockey League in the late sixties and into the mid-seventies.
O’Ree was one of the top scorers for the Gulls throughout his career, and in his final WHL season he scored 30 goals in 73 games. Five years later, O’Ree came out of retirement to play for the San Diego Hawks of the Pacific Coast League and scored 21 goals in 53 games – at the tender young age of 43. I had the privilege of watching many of O’Ree’s game that final season and even at his advanced age he was one of the PHL’s better players before the league folded in 1979.
When the San Diego Gulls were revived in the International Hockey League in 1990, and again in the West Coast Hockey League in 1996, both teams thought enough of O’Ree and his accomplishments to retire his #20. Even though we no longer have minor league hockey, Willie O’Ree will always be known around here as Mr. Gull and is as beloved in our community as Tony Gwynn.
Today O’Ree lives in the La Mesa area and is currently the director of diversity programs for the NHL.