WASHINGTON -- Willie O'Ree wasn't allowed an early screening of the film "Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future."
His co-worker at the NHL, Ken Martin, the League's senior vice president of community and diversity programming, wanted him to have a visceral reaction to a movie that is as much about him and his legacy as a groundbreaker in hockey as anyone else.
O'Ree broke the color barrier in the NHL when he debuted for the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958. He is now a pioneer for diversity in hockey through the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone program as the League's director of cause marketing.
He found out Wednesday night that Martin was right, it was worth the wait.
A few minutes after watching the film in its U.S. premiere at Landmark E Street Cinema in a crowd of nearly 200, including NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly, Washington Capitals chairman Ted Leonsis and coach Barry Trotz, O'Ree was near tears.
"Unbelievable," O'Ree said. "Now I know why he didn't want me to see it. It was breathtaking, really. I was thrilled when I saw it."
The film, the first in the cinematic career of director Damon Kwame Mason and the winner of the audience choice award for documentary film at the Edmonton International Film Festival last year, takes the audience through the winding history of black players in hockey.
Commissioner Bettman said Mason's film is a story that hasn't been told enough, and is one that is worth telling more because it shows how inclusive the game of hockey historically has been.
"It's a story that needed to be told, but not many people even imagined it could exist," he said. "If you told somebody about this movie without actually seeing it, they'd think it was a work of fiction, like 'how could it be because I've never heard of such a thing' is what you get from most people."
The film toggles back and forth, going from the turn of the 19th century into the 20th century, when the Colored Hockey League was in play in Nova Scotia, to present time. It features now 20-year-old prospect Jaden Lindo's tumultuous draft year, from hype to a knee injury to getting selected in the sixth round of the 2014 NHL Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Lindo, whose parents never skated and didn't know much about hockey when he told them he wanted to play, says he was once asked what it was like to be a black hockey player. His answer was that he didn't know, because he sees himself as a hockey player who happens to be black.
The audience is treated to the story of Herb Carnegie, a Canadian who turned down a contract from the New York Rangers in 1948 because of personal and family reasons. It documents that former Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe once said if Carnegie was white he'd sign him.
O'Ree's story, of him playing 21 professional seasons, including 45 games with the Bruins despite being blind in one eye, is a big part of the film. So too are former players Tony McKegney, Mike Marson and Val James, the first American-born black player in the NHL.
Modern day NHL players such as Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds , Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban and Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley are prominently featured, as are their parents.
It was all Mason's way of telling a history of hockey story he believes can be an educational tool to young black players today, one he never had as a kid growing up in Edmonton in the 1970s and 80s.
"I didn't want these kids to grow up thinking it's P.K. Subban and that's where it started," Mason said. "I wanted them to know there's a long standing history in this game and for us to show this history it is a service and it will broaden the game. You wait and you see; in 20 years the game is going to look at a lot different and it's going to be the biggest game in North America. I promise you on this one, because it's going to be so inclusive."
The film did its part in educating, entertaining and enlightening an audience that included a collection of people from the hockey world, the political world, including congressmen, and members of Washington's Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, which since 1978 has provided local and inner city youth an opportunity to participate in an organized hockey league.
"What I liked about it is it was three stories for me -- it was a history of the game, Kwame's story, and it was young Jaden's story," Trotz said. "There are some things that I feel ignorant on being someone in the game and not knowing all the story. It's quite enlightening."
Mason said his goal now is to work with the NHL to hopefully get the film shown nationally through the League's broadcast partners, NBC in the United States and Sportsnet in Canada.
He feels if more eyes can see it, the discussion of diversity and inclusion can grow, which would only benefit the NHL and the game at large.
"It has some funny moments, but it also has some educational moments," Mason said. "It has a way of making people think and say, 'Hey, let's have a bigger discussion about this game and let's see what more we can do with this game and let's see if we can attract a bigger audience.'"