Retiring O’Ree jersey will add to Bruins legacy who wore number 22

“They just said, ‘Here,'” O’Ree said of the Bruins’ equipment handlers at the time. “I put it on and wore it. I didn’t ask for 22. It was just a number that was presented to me.”

O’Ree and number 22 will forever become synonymous in Bruins history on Tuesday when his jersey banner is hoisted over the rafters at TD Garden before Boston takes on the Carolina Hurricanes (7 p.m. ET; SNE, SNO , TVAS, NESN, BSSO, ESPN+, NHL LIVE).

His number will be the 12th retired by Boston, joining those of Lionel Hitchman (No. 3, 1934), Said beating (No. 5, 1947), Eddie Shore (No. 2, 1949), Schmidt milk (No. 15, 1957), Bobby Orr (#4, 1979), Johnny Bucyk (No. 9, 1980), Phil Esposito (No. 7, 1987), Ray Bourque (No. 77, 2001), Terry O’Reilly (No. 24, 2002), Cam Neely (No. 8, 2004) and Rick Middleton (#16, 2018).

O’Ree was not the first player to wear number 22 with the Bruins, nor was he the last when he wore it in his last game with Boston in 1961. Thirty-five Bruins players have carried the number, 25 of them after O’Ree.

[RELATED: Learn more about Willie O’Ree]

Previous owners range from journeymen to some of hockey’s greats. Some of them were unaware they shared the number with O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first black player when he made his debut against the Montreal Canadiens on January 18, 1958.

Hockey Hall of Fame Defenders Brad Park and Brian Leetch bore the number. So did “NHL on TNT” studio analyst Rick Tocchet, Bruins radio analyst Bob Beers, Florida Panthers business manager Shawn Thorton, as good as Butch Goering and Jozef Stumpel.

Leetch recalls when then-Bruins general manager Mike O’Connell presented him with a No. 22 jersey at a press conference after the former New York Rangers star defenseman signed with Boston in as a free agent in August 2005.

Leetch, a double Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s top defenseman (1992, 1997) who scored 1,028 points (247 goals, 781 assists) in 1,205 games with the Rangers, Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, wore number 2 in New York but he was unavailable in Boston because he had been pulled for Shore.

“So [O’Connell] goes, “I just guessed you’d probably take this one after carrying 2 your whole career,” said Leetch, who played 61 games for Boston. “I said, ‘That sounds good to me.

“Honestly, I didn’t know Willie wore it until later as he was increasingly recognized not only for what he had accomplished in breaking the color barrier as a hockey player and for his work he was doing in youth hockey,” Leech said. “I had seen him at different events at Ice Hockey in Harlem when I was in New York, but I had no idea he was wearing No. 22 in Boston.”

Like Leetch, Park wore number 2 when he played 465 games for Rangers from 1968 to 1975.

Park said Bruins officials offered to ask Shore if he could have the number after it was acquired in a November 1975 trade that was also sent. Jean Ratelle and minor league defenseman Joe Zanussi in Boston and forward Phil Esposito and defenseman Carole Vadnais At New York.

“I said, ‘No, no, no, that number is retired,'” said Park, a five-time NHL All-Star First Team member who scored 896 points (213 goals, 683 assists) in 1,113 games with the Rangers, Bruins and Detroit Red Wings. “I asked, ‘What else do you have? They kept going over the numbers and they said, “We have 22”. I said, ‘I’m going to take 22, so I’ll be twice as good.'”

Park said he learned O’Ree wore the number when Boston first announced the jersey retirement ceremony in January 2021.

“I think Willie is a great choice,” he said. “He’s sort of a pioneer in the League. The team has been around for about 100 years, it’s an honor to have your number retired by an Original Six team.”

All Thornton wanted was a double number when the rugged left-winger signed with Boston as a free agent in 2007.

“I was 11 my whole life,” Thornton said. “I arrived in Boston and PJ Axelsson was 11. I asked the trainer, basically, ‘Which numbers aren’t in the rafters?’

“There were about four of them I could choose from, and number 22 was one of them. Ironically, once I got to Boston, my first outing was a Bruins golf tournament and I I was paired up with Willie O’Ree.re in Boston, you will learn more and more about Mr. O’Ree.

O’Ree said he didn’t realize so many Bruins players wore the number 22 after him, but he doesn’t mind because he knows how numbers are distributed by teams.

He wore three different numbers with the Bruins – No. 18 for two games, No. 25 for nine games and No. 22 for 34 of the 45 games he played during two seasons with Boston (1957- 58, 1960-61).

“When they brought me against Montreal on January 18, I was wearing number 18,” he said.

O’Ree scored 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) during his NHL career while legally blind in his right eye from a junior hockey injury.

O’Ree’s NHL career was brief, but he enjoyed a prolific career in the minor leagues, primarily in the former Western Hockey League with Los Angeles and San Diego.

He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 2018 in the Builders category for his off-ice accomplishments that helped create a new generation of players and fans as an ambassador for diversity in the NHL.

In his role, he helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs across North America as part of the Hockey Is For Everyone initiative and inspired over 120,000 boys and girls to play the sport.

Leetch said he looked forward to watching O’Ree’s jersey retirement ceremony, proud to be another Bruins No. 22.

“Hearing the stories about him and getting to know the individual, the man and what he did after his playing career, all the honors and recognition he receives is huge,” he said. “So to be a bit of an underdog of all of his great accomplishments as an individual is fun for me. It’s fun to talk about it right now.”

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