SAN DIEGO (NEWS 8) - He broke the color barrier in the National Hockey League and was just inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame this week.
Willie O’Ree has called La Mesa home for more than thirty years and in his words, there is a lot to love here.
As if being the first black NHL player wasn’t a big enough feat, Willie O’Ree says he did it all with just one eye.
O’Ree, born in Canada, his love of hockey began in the 1930’s in New Brunswick, where as a kid Willie started scoring goals and setting goals. He said his number one goal was to eventally play on the National Hockey League.
After years of work, the winger finally got his dream call in January of 1958 from the Boston Bruins. O’Ree said he didn’t realize he broke hockey’s color barrier until he read about it in the paper the next day.
He called it “quite thrilling.”
However, some fans were not thrilled and they made sure to let Willie know their disdain.
He said he constantly heard racial remarks and racial slurs, but he never let it bother him saying, “it went in one ear and out the other.”
After playing 45 games in the NHL, Willie eventually found himself in San Diego where he suited up for the Gulls for nearly a decade.
About San Diego, O’Ree said, “I came down here in 1967, and I fell in love with the climate, the beaches, the deserts the mountains, all tied into one, and it's great. I've shoveled enough snow in my lifetime.”
With family and friends also living in La Mesa, Willie says the location along with great shopping and restaurants has been a great fit.
Now Willie enjoys sharing his love of the game with the growing population of youth hockey players in southern California.
Willie was in San Diego working his job at the Hotel Del Coronado when the NHL called him again.
This time the league asked him to be the Director of Youth Development for its Diversity Task Force.
The non-profit program encourages minority youth to learn and play hockey.
Because of that work, his playing career and breaking barriers in the league, this past Monday, Willie O’Ree was inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame.
Eric asked him about the honor.
Now that we have seen what is going on in La Mesa these days, let's take a trip down memory lane to see how "the jewel of the hills" has changed.
Part of News 8's "Our Town" series from 1978, this clip showcases the San Diego neighborhood of La Mesa. The self-proclaimed "Jewel of the Hills" was like living in a Norman Rockwell painting, according to narrator Doug Oliver.
In the spring of 1995, News 8's Larry Himmel took a stroll down La Mesa Boulevard in East County San Diego. Larry popped into several quaint shops including a seashell store, a shop that repaired antique radios and one that specialized in anything with an angel on it. While some of those shops are no longer standing, the village today is still full of the small-town charm Larry showcased.