Willie O’Ree of the Boston Bruins was the First Black Player to Compete in the National Hockey League
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen applauded Senate passage of bipartisan legislation that they cosponsored to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Willie O’Ree, a former hockey player for the Boston Bruins who was the first Black player to compete in the National Hockey League (NHL). This bill was introduced by Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Tim Scott (R-SC) and now moves to the House of Representatives.
“As a hockey player for the Boston Bruins, Willie O’Ree broke barriers as the first Black player in the National Hockey League, inspiring countless young people of all backgrounds to take to the ice,” Senator Hassan said. “This Congressional Gold Medal would honor him not only for his accomplishments as a trailblazing hockey player, but also as a community leader, and I urge the House to join the Senate in passing this important bill.”
“It’s long past time that Willie O’Ree is recognized with Congress’s highest honor for his exceptional career and legacy playing for the Bruins as the first Black player in the NHL,” said Senator Shaheen. “He was a trailblazer who paved the way for generations of athletes to follow and served as a community leader who spearheaded a youth hockey program. This distinguished honor brings us closer to celebrating him for his shining legacy – both on and off the ice.”
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 recently 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.