NHL’s First Black Player To Receive Congressional Gold Medal

bill to honor hockey legend Willie O’Ree with the Congressional Gold Medal.
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Photo: Twitter

WASHINGTON – Wednesday, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) the House passage of her bill to honor hockey legend Willie O’Ree with the Congressional Gold Medal.

The bill, which is co-led by Representatives Mike Quigley (IL-05), Brian Higgins (NY-27), Tom Emmer (MN-06) and John Katko (NY-24), passed the Senate in July and will now head to the President’s desk.

Rep. Pressley delivered a floor speech on the bill during debate Wednesday. Heer remarks are and the full video is available here.

“Black history is American history, and I am thrilled to see our bill to award Willie O’Ree with the Congressional Gold Medal pass the House of Representatives today,” said Rep. Pressley. “Willie has had a tremendous impact both on and off the ice and the Congressional Medal is a testament to his lifetime of service, his contributions to the game, and the example he has set for Black athletes everywhere. I am honored to play a small part in getting him the recognition he so rightfully deserves, and ensuring Willie takes his rightful place in American history. I am grateful to Congressman Quigley, our colleagues, and the grassroots organizers who helped to make this a reality.”

O’Ree was the first Black player in the National Hockey League (NHL) and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018. Yesterday, the Boston Bruins held a special ceremony to retire O’Ree’s #22 jersey.

The bill’s passage was also applauded by its co-sponsors in the House and Senate.

"Just last week we hit 290 cosponsors, and today this legislation has passed the House, and will be sent to the President’s desk. This is a tremendous day of celebration and also acknowledgement of the extraordinary life Mr. O’Ree has led. I am thankful to House leadership for heeding our call and giving this bill the vote it deserved,” said Rep. Quigley. “Most importantly, I would like to thank Willie O’Ree for the example he has set and the opportunities he has opened for young people to not only get involved in hockey, but to know that barriers are meant to be broken.”

“Willie O’Ree has been a trailblazer for the sport of hockey, introducing countless new athletes and fans to the game. I am proud to have led this bipartisan effort to award Willie with Congress’s highest honor,” said Rep. Emmer.

“Throughout his time in the National Hockey League, as both a player and Diversity Ambassador, Willie O’Ree exemplified the confidence and courage required to make real change,” said Rep. Higgins. “Getting to know Willie through his charity hockey games I saw first-hand how his actions paved the way for equality, as he advocated for inclusion and diversity in hockey and offered important opportunities for many children of all backgrounds. This Congressional Gold Medal honors that progress, his career and his legacy.”

“Willie O’Ree broke the National Hockey League’s color barrier in 1958 and became a symbol of equality and opportunity for aspiring athletes of color,” said Rep. Katko. “Willie is a remarkable individual and is representative of values we cherish as Americans. He is extremely deserving of the Congressional Gold Medal. It was a privilege to introduce this legislation with my fellow Congressional Hockey Caucus Co-Chairs, and I am proud to see it pass the House.”

“Now that the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act has been passed by Congress, we can move forward on awarding Willie O’Ree the honor that he truly deserves. Willie O’Ree was not only a trailblazer as the first Black NHL player, but he has dedicated his career to expanding access to the game of hockey. In Michigan, his Hockey Is For Everyone program has changed the lives of so many young people. Willie O’Ree has set an example for all of us as Americans,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow.

“I am glad that the great Willie O’Ree will finally be given the long overdue and well-deserved honor of the Congressional Gold Medal,” said Senator Tim Scott. “His trailblazing hockey career and his decades of philanthropic efforts off the ice have changed countless lives. People like Willie remind us of the great opportunity of America and should give us all hope for the future.”

"The power of Willie's achievements and contributions has always extended beyond the sport of hockey, and the NHL is thrilled to see him honored for his social and cultural impact via the Willie O'Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act," said Kim Davis, NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Social Impact, Growth, and Legislative Affairs. "For decades, Willie has been an opportunity icon for children of color, for those with physical disabilities, and for all those who are in pursuit of their dreams. We could not be more excited for Willie to receive this very special recognition."

The Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act, which the lawmakers originally introduced in the House in May 2019, has been endorsed by the NHL, NHL Players’ Association and USA Hockey.

Willie O’Ree is an extraordinary athlete and activist who overcame numerous challenges and broke historic barriers to ensure that future players of diverse racial backgrounds would have equal opportunities to play hockey. In 1958, O’Ree was called-up from the minors to play for the Boston Bruins, becoming the first Black player in NHL history. As the sole Black player in the NHL, O’Ree endured racism, bigotry, and prejudice from players and fans on and off the ice. Despite this, he spent more than twenty-four seasons as a professional player in both the NHL and minor leagues. Following his professional hockey career, he became the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, where he established the Hockey Is For Everyone initiative to offer marginalized and disadvantaged children an opportunity to play hockey, create community, and develop important life skills.

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