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Color of Hockey: 'Willie' combines worlds for Capitals part owner

Johnson's film festival to show documentary about NHL's first black player

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past seven years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March and will be writing about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles Sheila Johnson, a part owner of the Washington Capitals and founder of a major film festival that will show "Willie," the documentary about Willie O'Ree, who was the NHL's first black player.

The screening of "Willie," the autobiographical documentary about Wille O'Ree, at the Middleburg Film Festival on Oct. 19, combines Sheila Johnson's worlds.

She's a part owner of the Washington Capitals, an executive producer of "Willie," the film about the life and times of the NHL's first black player, founder of the Middleburg Film Festival and chair and CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts. The Oct. 17-20 festival is held at the company's Virginia resort.

"This is my film festival, and as an African-American woman this is where it should be shown," Johnson said. "This all works together. It's about connecting the dots."

Johnson hopes that "Willie" will connect with the viewers and movie critics who'll come to Northern Virginia's horse country for the annual film festival that's rapidly gaining a reputation as a must-do stop on the road to the Oscars.

Films screened at last year's festival went on to receive 38 Oscar nominations. Of those, "Green Book" won Best Picture, Mahershala Ali was named Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film, and "Roma" took home statues for best foreign language film, cinematography and directing.

"The film festival's breakthrough is really a testament to Sheila Johnson," said Arch Campbell, a longtime Washington film and entertainment critic and host of the "At The Movies With Arch Campbell & Loo Katz" podcast. "I'd say it's among the 10 best film festivals in North America. Hollywood is on board, and she's won their respect."

Johnson said she believes that "Willie" is worthy of Oscar consideration because it's more than just a hockey movie.

The documentary gives historical context and personal insights about the man who overcame racial prejudice and blindness in his right eye -- the result of an injury sustained in junior hockey -- to become the NHL's first black player when he joined the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, for a game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Forum.

"With the 'Willie' movie, I love the message; there are so many messages for young people," she said. "Just his tenacity and being able to teach these young people how to find your passion, stick with it, and through determination and hard work don't let anybody tell you what you can't do."

"Willie" producer Bryant McBride called Johnson's endorsement flattering and a spot in her film festival an honor that could help the documentary eventually reach the public.

"It blows my mind, it's so surreal almost, the names of the other films being shown are so incredible," said McBride, a former NHL executive. "It's really a validation of how important the story really is. We are very much in the mix with a number of distributors. The film will get distributed, awards are just a big bonus. If anything happens, wonderful. What the priorities are is to get the film distributed so that millions of kids see it."

O'Ree, McBride, "Willie" director Laurence Mathieu-Leger and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, will attend the Middleburg screening and participate in a Q&A session afterward hosted by NBC Sports Network hockey analyst Anson Carter.

Johnson and Earl Stafford, another part owner of the Capitals who is also a "Willie" executive director, said he got involved in the film after learning about O'Ree's story from Leonsis.

They first met O'Ree when he was watching a game as a guest in the owner's suite at Washington's Capital One Arena.

"I saw this gentleman sitting with a hat on," said Stafford, who is CEO and founder of the Wentworth Group LLC, a Virginia-based private equity and consulting firm.

"Out of respect, I went over and said 'Hello, sir, my name is Earl Stafford.' He said, 'Hello, I'm Wille O'Ree.' Ted looked and said, 'Earl, don't you know who that is? He said, 'That's the first black person in the NHL.' I brought my granddaughter over and he was gracious enough to sign some things. I've been a been a fan ever since."

O'Ree had a brief NHL career: 45 games during the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons, scoring 14 points (four goals, 10 assists). But he enjoyed a lengthy and prolific minor league career, finishing with 639 points (328 goals, 311 assists) in 785 games, primarily for San Diego and Los Angeles of the old Western Hockey League from 1961-74.

He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 for his accomplishments off the ice, including his work across North America as NHL Diversity Ambassador. He has helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs and inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls to play the game.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are seeking to recognize O'Ree's achievements through legislation to award him the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.

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Tickets for "Willie" can be purchased at https://middleburgfilm.org/buy-tickets

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