WASHINGTON -- Members of the U.S. Senate and lead sponsors of the Congressional Gold Medal bill are urging fellow senators to sign legislation that would award Willie O'Ree, the NHL's first black player, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.
If approved, O'Ree would join a prestigious group of Congressional Gold Medal recipients that includes Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball, and civil rights pioneers Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Coretta Scott King.
"Please join us in honoring Willie O'Ree for his extraordinary contributions to sport, service and society by cosponsoring the Willie O'Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act," Sens. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) wrote in "Dear Colleague" letters. "Mr. O'Ree is best known as the 'Jackie Robinson of ice hockey' after he became the first black player to compete in the National Hockey League as a member of the Boston Bruins. Through his groundbreaking contributions and commitment to professional hockey, Mr. O'Ree has had a profound impact on the sport for the past sixty years."
Stabenow and Scott introduced the bill in late June. It's similar to a bipartisan bill introduced in the House of Representatives in May.
At least 67 of 100 senators must cosponsor the bill for it to be considered. In the 435-member House, at least two-thirds, or 290 lawmakers, must cosponsor the legislation.
O'Ree made history when he debuted with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum. He played 45 NHL games over two seasons (1957-58, 1960-61), all with the Bruins. But he enjoyed a lengthy and prolific pro career, mostly in the Western Hockey League, despite being blind in his right eye, the result of an injury sustained while playing junior hockey.
"At the time, he was unaware of the significance, only learning of the historic accomplishment when he read about it in the newspaper the following day," Stabenow and Scott wrote. "As the sole black player in the league, Mr. O'Ree endured bigotry, and prejudice from players and fans on and off the ice."
O'Ree, 83, is a descendant of an escaped South Carolina slave. He was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame last November for his off-ice accomplishments that helped cultivate a new generation of players and fans as the NHL's diversity ambassador. O'Ree has assisted in establishing 39 grassroots hockey programs, part of the League's "Hockey is for Everyone" initiative, and has inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls to play the sport.
"Willie O'Ree is a pioneer in the game of hockey and is deserving of the distinguished honor of a Congressional Gold Medal," Stabenow and Scott wrote.