In January of 1958, against the rival Montreal Canadiens, Willie O’Ree made his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins. In doing so he became the first black player in the NHL. Now 61 years later, the NHL is lobbying for O’Ree, 83, to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. It’s the highest civilian award that Congress can give.

Facing Racism

O’Ree faced many hardships throughout his career. He had to put up with racist taunts from other players, as well as fans, on a regular basis. He once recounted that fans would yell things such as, “How come you’re not picking cotton?” and, “Go back to the South!” Yet Willie stood his ground and persevered. Between major and minor leagues O’Ree played 21 years, and he’s commonly described as “the Jackie Robinson of hockey”.

25-year-old left wing Willie O’Ree, the first black player of the National Hockey League, warms up in his Boston Bruins uniform, prior to the game with the New York Rangers, at New York’s Madison Square Garden, on November 23, 1960. (AP Photo)

Hockey For Life

After his playing career ended in 1979, Willie O’Ree stayed with hockey. He’s been the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador since 1998, promoting inclusion and confidence in youth hockey programs throughout North America. In 2018 the NHL created the annual Willie O’Ree award for the person who made a positive impact on their community through hockey. Making 2018 even more significant, O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

(Getty Images)

The Congressional Gold Medal

Now, Senator Tim Scott of North Carolina and Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan are co-sponsoring a bill, along with the NHL, to award Willie O’Ree with the Congressional Gold Medal for his efforts to promote diversification and community wellness through hockey.

Speaking to O’Ree at a press conference, Sen. Scott said, “You were the grandson of slaves from South Carolina. I would just 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 that you represent today is what you represented in 1958, is that, in this country, all things are possible.”