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FOLLOWING IN WILLIE O'REE'S FOOTSTEPS

Feb. 9, 2011

by Michael Zuidema - mlive.com


GRAND RAPIDS -- Until somewhat recently, Jordan Owens didn’t know the full extent of Willie O’Ree’s story.

A few years ago, though, he caught a special on TV that documented the path O’Ree took to becoming the NHL’s first black player in 1958. Owens was inspired, and when he was traded to the Grand Rapids Griffins in March 2010, he wanted to show his appreciation in a meaningful way.

That’s why the 24-year-old left wing now wears the same No. 22 O’Ree wore with the Boston Bruins -- even if Owens originally followed the careers of other players while growing up near Toronto.

"To be honest, growing up I was watching guys like Kevin Weekes and Anson Carter," Owens said. "I didn’t really have a very good history lesson."

Owens has been playing hockey since he was 4 years-old — his mother’s parents helped get him started -- and has been the only black player on most of his teams.

But the color of his skin has not been something he really thinks about -- his parents have never mentioned if they encountered any prejudice over the years -- but he does acknowledge that he heard racial slurs as he made his way up the ranks.

"Not even enough to mention," Owens said. "Now and then there’s always one person in the crowd that usually is not a very good character, but there’s not anything that’s bothered me or scarred me for life by any means."

Griffins assistant coach Jim Paek can relate. He became the first Korean-born player to skate in the NHL in 1991, and said he heard epithets -- and still hears them from time to time on the bench.

But he said that kind of ignorance makes him more sad than angry or hurt.

"It wasn’t a real big issue. When there was something, it was just water off a duck’s back," Paek said. "You have to let it go. At the end of the day, they are just dummies, so you realize where the source is coming from."

Fortunately, he said, the vast majority of people in hockey don’t let race become an issue.

"At the end of the day, this is such a great sport that they don’t even recognize color, race or anything. They judge you on your ability," Paek said. "It hurts more if they say, ‘Hey, you suck as a hockey player.’ That hurts more than anything."

Black players no longer are a novelty in hockey. There are about 25 black players in the NHL this season, an all-time high, and the Atlanta Thrashers’ roster boasts five itself.

O’Ree, 75, now is the NHL’s director of youth development and the ambassador for its "Hockey is for Everyone" initiative.

Of course, it helps if you can play, which isn’t an issue for Owens.

He has five goals and 13 assists in 50 games this season, but Griffins coach Curt Fraser said Owens has been one of the team’s most consistent players and finds ways to contribute every night, whether it’s killing penalties or dropping the gloves. (Owens has seven fights this season, fourth-most on the team.)

"Jordan has done a terrific job for us this year, and he’s really stepped up," Fraser said. "He’s had some great games, but through the entire season Jordan has been really consistent. He’s improved in every way as a player, and he sticks his nose sometimes where he shouldn’t and that’s been a real good thing for us."

Owens, who also drew praise from Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock with a strong preseason, hopes to finish the year strong.

"I got off to a little bit of a slow start, but I seem to be picking up my play in the past couple months," Owens said. "I try to work hard and come to the rink every day with a clean slate, fresh state of mind and give it everything I have."

Owens appreciates the trails that were blazed by his predecessors and, despite the growing number of black players in hockey, he figures his race still might throw some people off a little bit.

He’s happy to serve as a role model for younger players, but looks forward to the day when race is no longer an issue in the sport.

"It’s good to see a lot of young players coming up, and not just black players, but Asian players and even players from smaller European countries," he said. "Everyone is playing hockey now, and it’s good to see.

"But I never like to make a big deal about it, because it’s never really been a big deal in my life."



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