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Black History Month

O'Ree commemorative coin unveiled by Royal Canadian Mint

Honors NHL's first black player, member of Hockey Hall of Fame

by William Douglas @WdouglasNHL / Staff Writer

OTTAWA -- Willie O'Ree's image is on a plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame, a likeness of his trademark fedora sits atop an NHL award that bears his name, and two hockey rinks in the United States and Canada are named in his honor.

Now he's on money as well.

The Royal Canadian Mint unveiled a Willie O'Ree commemorative $20 silver coin Tuesday as part of its celebration of Black History Month.

The 99.99 percent pure silver coin features O'Ree in the Boston Bruins jersey he wore when he became the NHL's first black player on Jan. 18, 1958, as well as his No. 22 and his signature on the front. Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain is on the back of the coin, which sells for $99.95 (CAD).

"I'm thrilled and honored to be recognized," O'Ree said. "To be on the same coin as the queen … who can ask for anything better than that?"

O'Ree joins more than a dozen former NHL players to be featured on a Canadian coin, an All-Star list that includes Jean Beliveau, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Maurice Richard, Jacques Plante, Ed Giacomin, Ray Bourque, Steve Yzerman, Doug Gilmour and Terry Sawchuk.

Mint officials said O'Ree was an easy choice to be placed on the coin because of his historical significance in helping integrate the NHL and for his post-playing career role in helping grow the game as the League's Diversity Ambassador.

O'Ree overcame racial prejudice and blindness in his right eye, the result of a hockey injury, and debuted with the Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens at the Forum on Jan. 18, 1958.

He appeared in 45 NHL games for the Bruins during the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons, finishing with 14 points (four goals, 10 assists). He also played more than 1,000 games and scored more than 400 goals in the minor leagues, mostly in the Western Hockey League, before retiring in 1979.

Since then, the 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee has helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs and inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls from all backgrounds play the game.

"Diversity and inclusiveness are cherished Canadian values, and it is wonderful to see them come to life every time kids and adults of all backgrounds band together to play Canada's game," said Marie Lemay, president and CEO of the Royal Canadian Mint. "Willie O'Ree's courageous determination to play at the highest level of professional hockey inspired generations of black players to carve their own paths as NHL legends."

Matt Eggink, the mint's product manager, said he's wanted to produce an O'Ree coin for a long time and is thrilled that it has finally happened.

"As a pioneer of the game, his courage and dedication to break hockey's color barrier makes him ever so deserving of this recognition," Eggink said. "With Black History Month upon us, he's the right person to pay tribute to this year as he continues to pave the way for young people to be part of the game he loves."

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