Willie O’Ree, the first Black person to ever play in the NHL, is finally getting his flowers—or should I say his Congressional Gold Medal.
O’Ree, who is blind in his right eye after being hit with a puck prior to his NHL debut, played professionally for more than two decades after joining the NHL in 1958 as a member of the Boston Bruins. Decades after his playing days drew to a close, the league tapped him to become its first diversity ambassador in 1998, allowing the 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee to expand his indelible impact on a sport in dire need of diverse representation with his Hockey is for Everyone youth program.
And after pouring his all into hockey for far longer than most of us have even been alive, The Hill reports that Senate has passed a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the “Jackie Robinson of hockey” for his “significant contributions to the sports world.” Passage of the bill comes after the legislation was first introduced in 2019.
“As the first Black player in the National Hockey League, Willie O’Ree was a trailblazer for young people across the country,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who along with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), introduced the bill, said in a statement. “He has also been a leader in the community, including his leadership through the Hockey Is For Everyone programs he championed in Detroit and around Michigan. Willie O’Ree has set an example for all of us as Americans.”
Kim Davis, the NHL’s senior executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives, and legislative affairs, released her own statement celebrating O’Ree’s achievement.
“Willie O’Ree has been committed to hockey for decades and his impressive list of accolades and achievements is reflective of his dedication to inspire young people across America,” she said.
The legislation now moves to the House of Representatives, where Scott expects they will “act quickly on this well-deserved recognition of Willie’s historic achievements.”