Willie O’Ree is one step closer to being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
A bill to give O’Ree the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Congress passed the Senate on Tuesday. Sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act praises the first Black player in the NHL for helping to integrate the League when O’Ree made his debut with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum.
The bill now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration. The House must follow the Senate and act on the bill for O’Ree to receive the medal.
“As the first Black player in the National Hockey League, Willie O’Ree was a trailblazer for young people across the country,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a Democrat who co-sponsored the Senate bill with Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. “He has also been a leader in the community, including his leadership through the Hockey is for Everyone programs in Detroit and around Michigan.”
Scott said O’Ree has inspired generations.
“Willie’s career didn’t end on the ice; it was punctuated by generations of athletes he helped navigate the path he paved,” he said.
Stabenow and Scott first introduced the bill in 2019, but it was not voted on in the last Congress. A new Congress was sworn in on Jan. 3, and the legislation was reintroduced.
Following the Senate’s unanimous passage of the bill, Scott said he looks forward to House “acting quickly on this well-deserved recognition of Willie’s historic achievements.”
NHL senior executive vice president of social impact Kim Davis said, “This is an exciting step forward bringing us closer to honoring him with the Congressional Gold Medal, and we hope the positive momentum continues in the U.S. House of Representatives.”
The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded to individuals or groups for distinguished achievements and contributions. Recipients include George Washington, the Wright brothers, Jackie Robinson, Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
O’Ree played two NHL seasons (1957-58, 1960-61), all with the Bruins, and scored 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in 45 games. But he had a lengthy pro career, mostly in the Western Hockey League, despite being blind in his right eye, the result of an injury sustained while playing junior hockey.
He was named the NHL’s first diversity ambassador in 1998. He has helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs and inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls to play the game.
O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, largely for his off-ice accomplishments that helped create a new generation of players and fans. His life story was told in an award-winning documentary, “Willie,” released in 2019.
A life-size bronze statue of O’Ree highlights a Black hockey exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“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,” Davis said. “He is first known for being a trailblazer on the ice, but he will forever be celebrated for his tireless work off the ice, providing opportunities for boys and girls to play hockey and, more importantly, become better citizens.”