MIDDLEBURG, Va. -- Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis called the screening of "Willie," the documentary about Hockey Hall of Famer Willie O'Ree, at the influential Middleburg Film Festival on Saturday a crescendo moment.
"Willie O'Ree is a historic individual and what he's accomplished, not only breaking the color barrier in the NHL but more just how he's become an exemplar for young people all around the globe and being an evangelist for hockey," Leonsis said. "It was an honor just to be able to shine a light on his story … it all crescendoed here at this great film festival in Middleburg."
Leonsis is an executive producer of the documentary that chronicles the life and times of O'Ree, who overcame racial prejudice and blindness in his right eye -- the result of an injury sustained while playing 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.
"Willie" became a passion project for members of the Capitals ownership. Earl Stafford and Sheila Johnson, who are among the NHL's few black owners, are also executive producers of the film.
Johnson founded the film festival, which is scheduled for Oct. 17-20 at the Salamander Spa Resort & Spa, a property she owns. It has become a barometer for feature films and documentaries for the Oscars.
Leonsis said he didn't want to "jinx" the prospects for "Willie," saying its Oscar-worthiness is a question for movie goers, film critics and members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
He said he's more focused on making sure the film is "seen far and wide, especially by young people, especially getting it in schools."
"The life lessons here, being able to overcome any kind of odds, grit, (stick-to-itiveness), those are life lessons that are most important," he said. "We want to do everything that we can to get this film to be a mass-market phenomenon."
For now, "Willie" is headed to California, where it will be screened during the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival Oct. 25 at LA Live.
O'Ree, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 2018, attended Saturday's screening. So did Neal Henderson, the founder of Washington, D.C.'s Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club. Henderson will become the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame's first black member when he's enshrined on Dec. 12.
The Fort Dupont program, founded in 1978, is North America's oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program. Leonsis said O'Ree and Henderson are "living heroes that can provide inspiration to young people and can also do battle against negativity.
"We live in this world where kindness and competitiveness can't be said in the same sentence," Leonsis said. "Willie is as hard a competitor and winner. For him to get in the Hall of Fame is great. We have to get him the Congressional Gold Medal and get him into the Smithsonian (National Museum of African American History and Culture)."