(Photo Credits: The Great Black Heroes)
By: Liz Rizzo | Follow me on Twitter @pastagrl88
The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded to those that “have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement.” Only eight athletes have ever received that honor, and this year if the NHL has its way, former Bruins player Willie O’Ree will be bestowed the award. It’s been reported that several NHL execs flew into Washington to help garner support in getting O’Ree the consideration.
(Photo Credits: Getty Images)
Along with the NHL, Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), and Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich) has been lobbying for O’Ree to be considered for the Medal. Scott introduced the legislation to get the former NHLer the recognition. The Senator met with O’Ree recently on Capital Hill and spoke very highly of the “Jackie Robinson of Ice Hockey”:
You were the grandson of slaves from South Carolina…I would like to put the icing on the cake from my perspective that this country continues to evolve in the right direction.
That in a time and date when there’s so much incivility, so much division and polarization, the one thing you represent today is what you represented in 1958, is that in this country, all things are possible…Thank you for being a trailblazer in a sport that I would imagine, even today people are unaware of the significant role that you played in opening the door.”
The high honor comes on the heels after O’Ree was inducted into the NHL Hall Of Fame for breaking the color barrier in 1958 when he suited up for the Boston Bruins. As chronicled earlier this year, O’Ree has been a prominent figure in the Ice Hockey Community where he has worked hard to bring the sport to minority and undeserved children. In 1996, O’Ree became the NHL’s first-ever Diversity Ambassador and helped develop the Hockey is for Everyone youth organization.
O’Ree was playing with the Quebec Senior Hockey League with the Quebec Aces when he was called by the Bruins to replace an injured player. Little did he realize that he would be crossing the color-lines when he played the against the Montreal Canadiens on January 18th, 1958.
“To me, I didn’t know I was breaking the color barrier until the next morning when I read it in the paper.”
(Photo Credits: Postmedia Network)
And to add more to this significant moment, O’Ree lost 95 percent of his vision in his right eye due being hit in eye by a puck and had the Boston Bruins known this, there might have been a chance he never would’ve gotten the call:
“I didn’t let that stop me. Back then, they didn’t have physicals like the ones given today. I could still see out of my left eye. I wanted to play and I did what I had to do to compensate for the injury…Being a left-handed shot and playing left wing to compensate, I had to turn my head all the way around to the right and look over my right shoulder to pick the puck up.”
O’Ree has received many awards in his time including being inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, the recipient of the Lester Patrick Award (given annually for hockey service in the Unites States) and was honored in 2008 with the naming of the Willie O’Ree Place at the Fredericton Arena in New Brunswick.
Little did he know the impact he would have for future black players in the NHL and the path he laid down. In a touching tribute, former Flyers now Devils player Wayne Simmonds wrote of the impact O’Ree had on him as a child and credits him with achieving his dreams of playing in the NHL:
“…none of it ever would’ve happened without Mr O’Ree opening the door-not just for me, but for every black hockey player with a dream…For every single kid who was ever told to ‘stick to basketball’, Willie was like the first man on the moon.”
And despite enduring the racial insults, threats and fights, O’Ree kept going:
“I’m not going to leave the league because there’s somebody there that feels that he wants to agitate me and get me out of the game”
(Photo Credits: Stephen MacGillivray / The Canadian Press)
The young 83-year-old NHL legend has a good chance at winning one of the highest honors given to a civilian and O’Ree could be none the happier:
“It would rank right at the top, the highest award probably that I’ve ever get as far as my lifetime. I’m thrilled and if it happens, I’d be very honored to come back and receive this award.”