Penguins Notebook: Just like old times as O'Ree, Johnston share memories

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Willie O'Ree, who broke the NHL's color barrier 50 years ago, is on the road nearly half the time as the league's director of youth development and ambassador for diversity. It's not often that he runs into someone he played with, but then there's hardly anyone involved in hockey over the past half-century that Penguins senior advisor Eddie Johnston does not know.

Or have a story or two about.

O'Ree, in town yesterday for various diversity and "Hockey in the Hood" activities, has a tale from 1959-60, when he and Johnston played for Hull-Ottawa of the Eastern Professional League.

The two were living in the warden's residence of a Hull women's prison -- which might be a story for a later time.

Once, when Johnston's car was on injured reserve, O'Ree gladly lent him his.

The problem was a combination of O'Ree's car having a stick shift and a sloped driveway at the prison.

"He didn't set the brake or left it in neutral, and it went down the drive and hit the corner of a brick house and caved the bumper in," O'Ree remembered, laughing.

Judging from the fact they have remained friends and greeted each other warmly yesterday, there are no hard feelings.

"He's a special guy," said Johnston, who admired O'Ree's skating. "He could fly. Oh, he could fly."

O'Ree played until 1979, mostly in the minor leagues. He had four goals and 10 assists in 45 NHL games.

He still gets on the ice with children. He works with 39 non-profit organizations, visits schools and makes various appearances across the United States and Canada.

After the Penguins' morning skate at Mellon Arena , winger Georges Laraque, the team's only black player, met with O'Ree and a group of children and adults who were his guests.

"He's got such a great personality, the kids love him," Johnston said.

Renney backs Penguins' goalies

Penguins No. 1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who made his second consecutive start last night, has taken some criticism for his play much of the season. He recently was benched in favor of Dany Sabourin for five games in an eight-game stretch.

Rangers coach Tom Renney thinks it's much ado about little.

"The [Penguins'] goaltending is much better than it gets credit for," he said.

"When you have a team that can light it up like Pittsburgh can, sometimes they might leave their guy a little bit vulnerable. But they also get respect from their opponents by how much offense they do have."

Slap shots

Veteran winger Mark Recchi returned to the Penguins' lineup after being a healthy scratch Thursday night. Also scratched were winger Colby Armstrong and defenseman Darryl Sydor. ... Penguins center Maxime Talbot shaved his Fu Manchu after the Penguins' 3-2 win Thursday against the New York Islanders. He said it was not because the team broke a four-game losing streak, but to try to change his own luck. He had four goals in the first five games, but none since going into last night and had no points in five games before last night. That changed when he scored in the first period last night. ... The NHL and its players union raised more than $9,000 for Hockey Fights Cancer through an auction of autographed copies of "Reflections on a Hockey Season: the 2007 NHL Year in Photographs." A limited edition copy signed by Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Penguins Hall of Fame owner Mario Lemieux brought the highest bid, $600. One signed by just Crosby fetched $530, and one by just Lemieux fetched $225. ... Laraque, Talbot and teammates Colby Armstrong and Kris Letang will distribute frozen turkeys for Thanksgiving dinners to underprivileged families tomorrow. The team also will publish a cookbook, "Goal Scorers & Gourmets," early next month featuring favorite player recipes with proceeds benefiting the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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