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National Hockey League’s First Black Player Honored at Canadian Embassy

By Clara Longo de Freitas

It was 1955 when Willie O’Ree was struck by a puck in his right eye, shattering his retina beyond repair. He became blind in one eye, the doctors said, and could never play hockey again. But O’Ree was still a junior player in the Quebec Senior Hockey League. Giving up then would mean never achieving his goal of making it into the National Hockey League.

Without ever telling his team manager, O’Ree went back to the camp four weeks later, became a professional player at the age of 22 with the Boston Bruins and played until 1979. Along the way, he became the first black hockey player in the NHL, breaking the racial barrier when he made his official debut in 1958. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last November and on Feb. 27, the Embassy of Canada in D.C. and the NHL co-hosted a reception to honor O’Ree and to announce efforts to award him the Congressional Gold Medal.

Although O’Ree is often remembered for his remarkable achievements as a winger for the Bruins, it was his character and his work as an NHL Diversity Ambassador and Director of Youth Development over the last 20 years that was spotlighted during the reception, which coincided with Black History Month.

Guests from different generations and backgrounds shared their impressions and favorite memories of O’Ree. He was described as an American and Canadian hero who, at the age of 83, could still be intimidating in the ice rink. He is “modest” and “extraordinary,” with a lively personality, said Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.).

“He was talking about [overcoming] his physical challenge of being blind in one eye, [and] I said, ‘Since you are blind in one eye, I hope they told you I look like Beyonce.’ And he said, ‘I know,’” she recalled, laughing. “He is an extraordinary athlete and ambassador and educator.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman attributed O’Ree’s work as a Diversity Ambassador for being a “trailblazer who paved the way for the players of diverse ethnic backgrounds.” Over the years, O’Ree has helped establish 39 local grassroots hockey programs and inspired countless young people to play the game.

NHL First Black Player Willie O’Ree
Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL, stands in front of a mobile museum truck outside the Canadian Embassy. Photo: Embassy of Canada

“It’s no exaggeration to say that Willie has touched the lives of more than 120,000 young people, taking the values of [hockey and] teaching [them] life lessons of teamwork and hard work and leadership,” Bettman said.

Congressman and Chair of the Congressional Hockey Caucus Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) also praised O’Ree’s “extensive contributions to society.”

“Now it’s Congress’s turn to do the same thing. In the coming days, the Congressional Hockey Caucus will introduce the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act,” Quigley said.

The Congressional Gold Medal is one of the highest civilian awards in the United States. To win the prize, two-thirds of the House of the Representatives must sponsor the individual. Jackie Robinson, the first African American baseball player and whom O’Ree is frequently compared to, received a Gold Medal after his death.

“As I was walking around the House floor soliciting co-sponsors for my petition to honor Mr. O’Ree … it just felt so good that we don’t agree on everything but we all agree on you, Willie,” said Pressley, was one of the co-sponsors of the act. “People were fighting and clamoring to sign that petition.”

Pressley was the first women of color elected to the Boston City Council and is now the first black woman to represent her district in the House. She said she understood the “blessing and the burden” of being a pioneer, imagining what life must have been like for the early civil rights pioneers, who lived in a segregated world, were targeted with racial slurs and had hoses turned on them for protesting for equal rights.

“Then I would open my eyes and realize none of that was happening,” Pressley said. “But many had endured those injustices and those indignities for me to be at that very moment. While I played field hockey and not ice hockey, I know that I’m the beneficiary of [O’Ree’s] sacrifice.”

An emotional O’Ree then approached the podium and said that when he retired from professional hockey, he felt the need to give back to the sport and his community. Through his work as a Diversity Ambassador and the “Hockey Is for Everyone” initiative, he has traveled across North America, visiting marginalized and disadvantaged youth in schools and establishing hockey programs. O’Ree works with boys and girls to teach them the importance of working toward their goals.

NHL First Black Player Willie O’Ree
From left, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Canadian Ambassador David MacNaughton present Willie O’Ree with a letter from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Photo: Embassy of Canada

“I tell them … you can make a difference.” O’Ree said. “I get letters, emails, phone calls [from kids] I came into contact eight or 10 years ago, just thanking me for coming to their school and telling them about setting goals for themselves, believing in [themselves] and liking themselves. I feel that I’m a much better person, and there’s no money in the world that can take the place of that. I’ll continue for as long as I can. I love my job.”

The ceremony ended with a statement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which was read by a representative of the embassy.

“Willie O’Ree, just like hockey, is one of Canada’s greatest exports,” Trudeau said. “Mr. O’Ree spread a message of hope and perseverance through hockey. He led by example and encouraged countless other minority players to pursue their dreams while making the world of competitive sports more inclusive and diverse.” 

 

 


Clara Longo de Freitas is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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