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Saturday, January 28, 2023

How Willie O’Ree, Walter Dubas helped shape a hockey mission

One of the greatest agents for diversity and inclusion in hockey has quietly slipped into Toronto for this weekend’s Carnegie Initiative Summit.

Bryant McBride has long been one of hockey’s leaders in pushing for diversity and inclusion in the game. That’s the mission behind the many hats he wears. From founding the NHL’s diversity task force in 1994 to becoming a behind-the-scenes influencer and developer who’s been a catalyst for things like the long overdue induction of Herb Carnegie into the Hockey Hall of Fame and a more diverse ownership structure in the Premier Hockey Federation.

This weekend, McBride, 57, from Lexington, Mass., will be joined by speakers from the corporate world, media, academia, government, MLSE and others, to shine light on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the sport of hockey.

Inclusion, though, is something more than a cause to be promoted at events for McBride, who was the first Black executive in the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman’s seventh hire in the league’s offices. Inclusion is McBride’s mission in life, and he views hockey, in part, as a “great teacher” for inclusivity.

“There’s no greater sport in the world, for teaching kids, and especially kids of colour,” McBride said in an interview this week.

“The first thing you do when you get out there on the ice is you fall on your butt, and the first thing you learn is to get back up. That trajectory from a time when a kid is in October, to April, when they’re flying around out there, is that you figure it out. You say, ‘I can do hard things, I can figure this out’ … that’s why kids of colour have to play hockey, that’s why girls have to play hockey. I’ve never seen anything that does it better.”

A father of two who was born in Chicago but grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, McBride is the co-founder of the Carnegie Initiative along with Bernice Carnegie, the daughter of Herb. He is also a relentless entrepreneur who is the CEO of his own start-up company Burst in the mobile video technology space.

McBride was approached a year ago by BTM Partners — an investment group out of Boston started by John and Johanna Boynton — to help rebuild the ownership structure in the PHF. The group owns and operates four of the seven teams in the league, with McBride holding the lead board member position for the Toronto Six.

Prior to joining the NHL, McBride was the first Black class president of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where he played for the school’s hockey team and a Harvard University grad, earning a master’s degree in public administration.

While the list of credentials is long and impressive, it was the link to Sault Ste. Marie that taught McBride to “stand up on my own two feet” — literally.

“Kyle Dubas’ grandfather taught me how to be a good defenceman, and helped me get to college hockey,” said McBride, adding that he also “learned a lot” from former Leafs GM Brian Burke at the NHL offices.

McBride put the connection to Leafs GM Kyle Dubas together when they were out to dinner together about a month ago.

“I said, ‘Wait a second, your dad is Mark, and your grandad is Walter?’ He said yes, and I said Walter changed my life. I was a 14-year-old minor bantam kid trying to figure out how to take someone one-on-one coming at me 100 miles an hour. And he was coaching an opposing team in the league I was in … he just saw me working hard and made it a point to find me and help me develop my skill over a three-month period. I never got beat one-on-one in college hockey, so that’s where I come from, that’s how I come about this, you help people.

“And that was me in 1979, in a town of 75,000 people, where there were 12 Black people, and I was related to five of them … Walter Dubas was an ally, that’s who he was. I was so thrilled to connect those dots and tell Kyle about that.”

McBride, who was the executive producer behind the acclaimed documentary, “Willie,” the story of NHL pioneer Willie O’Ree, will preview the trailer of another film — “Six Days in November” — at the summit this weekend. The theme of the film reflects on the Hall of Fame inductions last November for Carnegie and Buck O’Neil, the former Negro League star who became the first Black coach in MLB history.

McBride was “blown away” when he first met O’Ree while the retired hockey legend was working as a security guard at a San Diego hotel.

That meeting, and Carnegie’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, cemented McBride’s mission to build a more inclusive future for hockey and life in general.

“When I found Willie, he was this earnest, humble, gracious, incredible guy and I’m totally blown away by him,” said McBride.

“I thought, how is this guy not bitter? Everything he’s been through … I’m sitting in his office in San Diego, and I look up and there’s the Order of Canada. I said what the hell is going on? The world’s forgotten about him.”

McBride remembers seeing O’Ree’s Order of Canada award on the wall of his office. Beside them were two plaques honouring him for being the employee of the year at the hotel. He contrasts that moment to last January when he cried while watching O’Ree have his No. 22 jersey retired by the Boston Bruins.

“That’s when I knew what my calling was, my mission,” McBride said. “And we’re going to make it that much more important in the next few years.”

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