Willie O’Ree’s portrait goes on permanent display in his hometown of New Brunswick

In Frederictonfew names are more iconic than Willie O’Ree.

He was the first black hockey player to be included National Hockey League and now a life-size portrait of him hangs permanently in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

Tim Okamura is the artist assigned to paint the portrait.


“All over this city, you can see the love for Willie, and… you know, I’m so lucky to be a small part of that,” he said at the launch Wednesday night.

Okamura is a Canadian contemporary painter who studies identity, urban environments, metaphors and cultural symbolism. He is known for portraying BIPOC themes in an urban setting and his fusion of graffiti and realism.

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His interest in hockey began at an early age, after discovering his father’s hockey equipment at their home in Edmonton.

Tim Okamura is the Canadian artist assigned to create a life-size portrait of NHL legend Willie O’Ree.

Nathalie Sturgeon / Global News

During his speech, Okamura talked about how he would hear people talk about the lack of Black representation in hockey, specifically.

“Usually the next sentence is, ‘there are no Black players in hockey,'” he said.

“As a hockey fan, I will always try to educate people and say that in fact has been, is and will continue to be an important part of the sport.”

Click to play video: 'Edmonton artist behind portrait of Willie O'Ree, first black NHL player'

Edmonton artist behind portrait of Willie O’Ree, first black NHL player

He said after explaining ‘too many times’ that there are players of color in the NHL, he had an epiphany.

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“Okay, this is your job, your concern with the agent and this is your passion for hockey,” said Okamura. “I had an idea.”

O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame following the considerable efforts of many supporters in Fredericton. His HOF ring is included in the portrait.

Nathalie Sturgeon / Global News

He will continue to paint portraits of hockey legends like PK Subban, Joel Ward, Devante Smith-Pelly, Wayne Simmonds and Darnell Nurse.

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Okamura started compiling legends and O’Ree was naturally on that list. Through circumstance, connection, and conversation, Okamura got to spend time with O’Ree in Philadelphia.

“He was ready for the portrait, with his clothes, hat, everything set up… and this jersey you see, he had a cane with him, and he sewed it up. fortunately, at the right time, he wore the ring in the Hall of Fame,” he said.

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Bring your portrait home

O’Ree, who lives in California and was unable to attend the premiere, is woven into the fabric of the City of Fredericton. A large arena bears his name, there are local displays at his old high school, and a booth bears his name in an iconic restaurant called The Cabin.

Therefore, John Leroux, the curator of collections and exhibitions at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, says it makes perfect sense for it to be on permanent display in his hometown.

The portrait will be on permanent display at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

Nathalie Sturgeon / Global News

“Having the portrait here is a wonderful privilege,” he said. “It captures the character’s soul, Willie’s dignity and strength.”

Leroux believes this is appreciated not only by art lovers but also by sports fans who can find kinship in art.

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“It was great to share with the world,” he said.

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