January 18, 1958 - Willie O'Ree Takes to the Ice - Guelph Local
(Photo Credits: K.C. Alfred)

By: Liz Rizzo | Follow me on Twitter @pastagrl88

The Congressional Gold Medal is one of the highest civilian awards given in the United States. The medal is given to those individuals or groups “who 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.” One such individual who has garnered support since last April is former Boston Bruin and 2016 Hall of Famer Willie O’Ree.

Last year, Senators Tim Scott and Debbie Stabenow made the push for the award to be given to O’Ree for his numerous contributions in the world of hockey. Known as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey”, O’Ree unknowingly broke the color barrier when he debuted on January 18th, 1958 with the Boston Bruins. He would continue to play professionally for 21 years.

“At the time, he was unaware of the significance, only learning of the historic accomplishment when he read about it in the newspaper the following day. As the sole black player in the league, Mr. O’Ree endured bigotry, and prejudice from players and fans on and off the ice.

“Willie O’Ree is a pioneer in the game of hockey and is deserving of the distinguished honor of a Congressional Gold Medal.”

U.S. senators Tim Scott and Debbie Stabenow 

Bill H.R 2504 was introduced on May 2nd, 2019 to “award a Congressional Gold Medal to Willie O’Ree, in recognition of his extraordinary contributions and commitment to hockey, inclusion, and recreational opportunity.” Around 290 House members must co-sponsor the bill in that chamber, and at least 67 senators must support the bill for it to be considered.

The proposed bill identifies numerous findings that make O’Ree a perfect candidate for the award. His remarkable story starts in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada where O’Ree was born October 15, 1935. The youngest of 13 children and a descendant of Paris O’Ree, whose name appears in the famous historical document “The Book of Negroes”, he was raised in a predominantly white town where hockey was deeply rooted within the culture.

(Photo Credits: NHL.com)

While initally looking to pursue a professional baseball career, O’Ree focused back to hockey after coming face to face with culture shock in the United States. Growing up in Canada, O’Ree was not subjected to the traumatic racism he faced when he went out for tryout in Georgia.

After an incident at a local drugstore where he and his teammates had slurs hurled at them, he headed back up north to pursue his first love: hockey. While playing amateur hockey, he would lose his eyesight in his right eye after being struck by a puck (which was not disclosed while he played professional hockey), O’Ree continued with his dream. Throughout his career, he would be subjected to racist slurs on the ice. Despite having things like cotton balls thrown at him during games and constantly fighting to protect himself, O’Ree persevered.

In 1996 after retiring from hockey, the National Hockey League hired O’Ree as the first-ever Diversity Ambassador. In this new position, the former Bruins would help grow the sport by providing access and opportunity to children of all races, ethnicities, origins, and abilities. Because of his unrelenting work with the youth, more than 30 nonprofit organizations, (the “Hockey is for Everyone” programs), were developed across North America. The program is committed to offering minority and underserved children an opportunity to play hockey all while installing positive values.

The Hockey is for Everyone programs provide numerous services that extend beyond the ice. SAT and academic tutoring, mentoring, nutrition education, college counseling, and community service opportunities are provided. Through hockey, both the social and emotional wellness of young athletes have also improved their academic performances in school. O’Ree continues to inspire generations of hockey players from all different social aspects, spreading his love of hockey to diverse communities.

Former Bruins right winger Anson Carter recently reminded fans of Willie O’Ree’s candidacy for the medal. He recently tweeted:

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To find out more about the proposed bill and to learn more about Willie  click here to be directed to the NHL community.

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