NHL’s First Black Player Willie O’Ree to Receive Congressional Gold Medal

Willie O'Ree, the first Black player in the NHL. Image: ngela Rowlings/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images.

On Wednesday, the House voted unanimously to award a Congressional Gold Medal to Willie O’Ree, the first Black player in the National Hockey League, CNN reports.

In a 426-0 vote, Congress passed The Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act.

 Last July, the bill unanimously passed in the Senate after being introduced by Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. The legislation now heads to the desk of President Joe Biden for his signature

The Congressional Gold Medal, which is the nation’s highest civilian award, recognizes “his contributions and commitment to hockey, inclusion, and recreational opportunity.” 

Known as the “Jackie Robinson of Hockey,” in 1958, O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier with the Boston Bruins. In 45 games in the NHL, he scored four goals and recorded 10 assists.

After spending three seasons with the Bruins, he would play 18 more seasons, mostly in the Western Hockey League with the Los Angeles Blades and the San Diego Gulls. 

Throughout his professional career, O’Ree said that he endured racial slurs from opposing players and from fans in the stands during every game he played in. 

“Besides being Black and being blind in my right eye, I was faced with four other things: racism, prejudice, bigotry, and ignorance,” he said.

He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 2018 and the same year, the NHL instituted the annual Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award in his honor, to “recognize the individual who has worked to make a positive impact on his community, culture or society to make people better through hockey.

On Tuesday, O’Ree’s jersey was retired by the Bruins.

For the last twenty years, O’Ree has served as the NHL’s director of youth development and ambassador for NHL diversity and is credited “the way for future players of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds.”

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