At the turn of the year, the president of USA Hockey Jim Smith said, “These are exciting times for hockey in the United States, and as our participation numbers indicate, the best is yet to come."

The Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation and National Hockey League (NHL) contributed to creating "exciting times" by hosting the annual Willie O'Ree Skills Weekend earlier this month.

“Hockey is a path of self-discovery,” O'Ree said in an interview with hockeybuzz.com's Bill Seltzer.

“Everyone is three different people: the person who you think you are, the person who others think you are and the person who you really are. You have to find that person you really are, set goals that are meaningful to you and then be committed to meeting those goals no matter what it takes. That's how you succeed,” he said.

In conjunction with the NHL's Hockey Is for Everyone initiative, 55 youth hockey players from the United States and Canada participated in educational, social and on-ice training activities.

Emphasizing character-building, commitment and hockey skill development, the students were welcomed at a banquet and program at the National Liberty Museum. They also trained at the historical Laura Sims Skate House in West Philadelphia, participated in a Outward Bound group bonding session, viewed a screening of the documentary “Soul on Ice” and skated on the Wells Fargo Center's ice rink.

“Overcoming people’s views when we go out to play in tournaments is somewhat of a challenge,” said Girls' High sophomore Maryam Belgrave. A hijab-wearing Muslim, the East Falls resident began playing hockey four years ago at West Oak Lane’s Simons Recreation Center.

Perhaps not the first hockey player of her kind, Belgrave was appreciative of participating in the Skills Weekend and respects what O’Ree means to the history of the game and the Black diaspora.

“He broke barriers for people like me to be able to play a game we’ve grown to love,” said Belgrave.

Known as the “Jackie Robinson of hockey,” O'Ree became the NHL’s first Black player in 1958 when he made his debut with the Boston Bruins. Now the director of youth development and ambassador for NHL Diversity, O'Ree continues to operate with purpose and vitality.

“I'm just happy I can still go out and work with these kids and help them set goals for themselves and work toward their goals,” O'Ree said on the closing day.

“Seeing Mr. O'Ree again gave me a great sense of nostalgia,” Ferris Miller said. “I got the chance to show him the jersey I wore that he autographed for me all those years ago.”

A Laura Sims Skate House staff member and former Snider program participant, Miller was excited to have gotten the chance to “share a laugh with a living legend.”

Born in Canada, O'Ree has helped the HIFE initiative introduce more than 85,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds to hockey. Over the past decade, O'Ree has traveled thousands of miles across North America, establishing local grass-roots hockey programs. Geared toward serving economically disadvantaged youth, HIFE has contributed to growing the game throughout America.

“Hockey has helped me socially and allowed me to meet a lot of new people,” stated Dallas Hartford-Jackson of S.C.O.R.E. Boston Hockey. “Before I was really a shy person, but now I’m able to make more friends and that makes me really happy. Coming to camps like this I’m able to improve on my communication skills which help me on and off the ice,” she said.

O’Ree’s tales of overcoming racially based challenges in sport, as well as being blind in his right eye due to a hockey-related injury, were a few of the life lessons taught during the weekend.

“This weekend is significant because it not only brings kids from all over North America together to make new friends and share in learning projects, it also brings together key administrators from the many HIFE programs they represent to share ideas and best practices,” said Scott Tharp, president and CEO of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. “We are pleased to host this important event in the City of Brotherly love.”

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