Willie O'Ree is back on track to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
A bill to honor the first Black player in NHL history with the medal was reintroduced by U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Tim Scott on Thursday. The bill, sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, lauds O'Ree for helping to integrate the NHL when he made his debut with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, at the Montreal Canadiens. The award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Congress.
"From his historic debut with the Boston Bruins to his decades of service to create greater opportunities for diverse, young hockey players across America, Willie O'Ree has made remarkable contributions to our sport and to society," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "The Willie O'Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act, introduced today with bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate, is a tremendous honor that Willie undoubtedly deserves for his impact on and off the ice."
Stabenow, of Michigan, and Scott, of South Carolina, first introduced the bill in 2019, but it was not voted on by the last Congress. A new Congress was sworn in Jan. 3, and the legislation needed to be reintroduced.
The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded to individuals or groups for distinguished achievements and contributions. Recipients include George Washington, the Wright brothers, Winston Churchill, Jackie Robinson, Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
"As the first Black player in the National Hockey League, Willie O'Ree was a trailblazer for young people across the country," Stabenow said. "He not only was a trailblazer in the National Hockey League, but was also a leader in his community, including the Hockey is for Everyone programs he championed in Detroit. Willie O'Ree set an example for all of us as Americans."
O'Ree was named the NHL's first diversity ambassador in 1988. He has helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs and inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls to play the game. In 2018, O'Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame for his off-ice accomplishments, which have helped cultivate a new generation of players and fans.
"Willie O'Ree broke barriers and paved the way for Black Americans on and off the ice," Scott said. "His example, mentorship, and groundbreaking story epitomizes the American dream, and I look forward to him receiving the Congressional Gold Medal."