J.T. Brown one of many impacted by pioneer Willie O'Ree
Lightning wing J.T. Brown will always remember the time five years ago when he met Willie O'Ree.
"Pretty incredible experience," Brown said. "The way he's pioneered the game for young African Americans."
O'Ree was the first African American to play in the NHL when he debuted for the Bruins in January 1958. Brown, 26., as one of 17 blacks in the NHL, has been inspired by him.
That's why it's so special - and fitting - to see O'Ree, 81, drop the ceremonial puck today on Martin Luther King Day. Brown, who is not playing due to an upper body injury, hoped to catch up with him.
"He broke so many barriers, made it possible for me to play the game that I love," Brown said. "Anything I can do to keep growing the game, keep doing the things he did to help, that's something I'm willing to do.
Brown has taken an active role trying to grow the game in Tampa Bay, joining the team's "Guide the Thunder" mentoring program, where he helps at-risk kids. There's still hope to bring more African Americans to the NHL.
"Obviously you can see fromm 1 to 17 is moving in the right direction," Brown said. "But even Willy would say that's not enough."
NOTES: Brown, who participated in his first team skate Sunday (albeit in a red non contact jersey), isn't expected to play today. Brown, who missed the past three games, said his conditioning isn't quite there yet. But Brown could return this week.