Willie O'Ree was at home in San Diego when he took a phone call from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who shared surprising news that would be another accolade in a dignified lifetime in hockey.
His on-ice career and off-ice community endeavors as diversity ambassador for Hockey is For Everyone have been celebrated for generations. The League will recognize his commandments of hard work, perseverance, honesty, integrity and setting goals with the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award, presented to the person who best utilizes hockey as a platform for participants to build character and develop important life skills for a more positive family experience.
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"It was a total surprise," O'Ree said. "When he called, I didn't know. I asked, 'Commissioner Bettman, what's going on?' He came out and said, 'Yeah, it's what the NHL really wanted to do. I was very honored."
Born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, O'Ree, 82, played junior hockey starting with Quebec of the Quebec Provincial Junior A Hockey League in 1954-55, his playing days nearly finished when he was hit in his right eye by a shot that also broke his nose and cheekbone, causing him to lose sight. He overcame the odds to break the NHL color barrier with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958. Throughout the journey, he was a portrait of inner strength in the face of bigotry. When he was on the ice, he didn't hear any of it. All he heard was the movement of the puck.
Video: Nominate heroes for Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award
Nominees for the award may include, but are not limited to: players, parents, siblings, coaches, referees, administrators, volunteers, and rink owners and operators. Among the staples of the winner are leadership, collaboration that's transcended hockey, improving lives and helping others reach their potential. He/she will be unveiled at the 2018 NHL Awards presented by Hulu at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas on June 20.
"When I go conduct clinics and I'm on the ice with these kids, some of them may set goals for themselves to play pro," O'Ree said. "All I want to do is just instill in these boys and girls just to play and have fun. It's not only about the hockey skills, but learning about life in general and getting along with people."
Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Those in communities who dig deep and commit each day to engage with kids and create a love for hockey by not just playing the game, but learning lessons applied to a lifetime.
"It's an incredible way to see what the heart and the soul of our sport really is," said Kim Davis, the League's executive vice president, social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs.
Video: 60 years later, O'Ree's strength and courage resonate
"They will stand for all of those attributes. They will be someone who is involved every single day in trying to create opportunities so kids can see themselves in different lens. It's a chance for people to see what their possibilities are, unsung heroes who are spending every day encouraging and inspiring. That's what Willie does."
One of the influential voices behind the award, Davis and her endorsement carry clout. She was profiled by Essence magazine in 2012 alongside Michelle Obama as one of the 28 most influential black women in America and has worked with tennis legend Billie Jean King to establish a non-profit leadership initiative promoting equality. Long a pioneer for social justice, King won the famous "Battle of the Sexes" match against Bobby Riggs on Sept. 20, 1973. She also founded the Women's Tennis Association and the Women's Sports Foundation.
The similarities between King and O'Ree became clear to Davis during the past few weeks.
"The quest for equity and fairness," Davis said. "Using their sport and the privilege that they have of being an athlete to do good, to be focused on the future. Both are just so intensely focused on kids and the future. The integrity, the resilience, the grit, all of the things that made them so successful in the sport are the things that have made them so successful in life."
That's how the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award will honor the common person, an important step in what Davis called, the broader journey we're creating. Another part of it is helping to further enhance the Declaration of Principles dedicated in part to creating the best possible experience for the entire hockey community.
"This is one step along that pathway, but I think it's an important one," Davis said.
Beginning Tuesday, nominees for the award will be accepted via an online form at NHL.com/OReeAward. A committee including O'Ree will choose three finalists before voting is opened to the public from May 25-June 1.