Willie O’Ree of the Boston Bruins was the First Black Player to Compete in the National Hockey League
WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden today signed into law bipartisan legislation cosponsored by Senators Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Willie O’Ree, a former Boston Bruins hockey player recognized as the first Black player to compete in the National Hockey League (NHL).
“Willie O’Ree is a trailblazing athlete whose contributions to hockey lasted well beyond his time on the ice,” Senator Hassan said. “I am proud to be part of a bipartisan effort to award him this distinguished honor, and I know I stand with New England sports fans in applauding him on this well-earned recognition.”
“I’m proud to cosponsor this legislation and I’m thrilled to see the President sign it into law so we can finally pay tribute to Willie O’Ree in a manner that is worthy of his historic legacy on and off the ice,” said Senator Shaheen. “Willie O’Ree shattered barriers in the NHL as the league’s first Black player and Boston was proud to call him one of our own during his tenure with the Bruins. A dedicated youth leader in his personal time, Willie O’Ree used his position of power to make meaningful change in his community. He is most deserving of Congress’ highest honor and I’m glad to see him bestowed with this award.”
A multi-sport athlete, O’Ree originally intended to play professional baseball. After he experienced segregation during a tryout in the Jim Crow era, he turned to professional hockey. Despite being blind in one eye from an injury he suffered in 1956, he made his NHL debut in 1958 playing for the Boston Bruins. O’Ree played 45 games from 1958-61 in the NHL and more than 20 seasons of professional hockey.
In 1998, O’Ree was named the National Hockey League’s first-ever Diversity Ambassador, championing positive social change through hockey. In that role, O’Ree built the Hockey Is For Everyone youth hockey program, which has supported more than 30 organizations across North America providing boys and girls from underserved communities the opportunity to play hockey, build character, and develop important life skills. Since its inception, Hockey Is For Everyone programs have served more than 130,000 boys and girls across North America. As part of his commitment, O’Ree has made more than 500 visits to schools, community centers and rinks, and has been the subject of more than 13,000 books, articles and shows. In November 2018, after collecting more than 1,000 points over a 20-year professional hockey career, and positively impacting countless lives through his work as the League’s Diversity Ambassador, O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in recognition of his efforts to grow the game.
Senators Hassan and Shaheen are working to honor important historical figures who are often overlooked in history books. For instance, the Senate passed bipartisan legislation, cosponsored by Senators Hassan and Shaheen, to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the women of the Six Triple Eight Battalion, which included Portsmouth native Doris Moore, which was the only all-Black, all-female battalion serving overseas during World War II. Senator Hassan also helped introduce bipartisan legislation, which Senator Shaheen cosponsored, to honor the groundbreaking service of the women who served as telephone operators during World War I, and who were crucial in connecting American and French forces on the front lines.