O'Ree, the NHL Diversity Ambassador and a 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, and his committee chose the finalists from a pool of 10 semifinalists based on their demonstration of leadership, collaboration and behavior that has improved lives and helped others reach their potential.
The finalists are Anthony Benavides of Detroit, Michigan, director of the Clark Park Recreation Center; Tammi Lynch of Ellicott City, Maryland, founder of Players Against Hate; and Rico Phillips of Flint, Michigan, founder of the Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey Program.
Video: Willie O'Ree surprise calls the three finalists
The winner of the award, presented to the person who best utilizes hockey as a platform to help people build character and develop important life skills for a more positive family experience, will be announced at the 2019 NHL Awards presented by Bridgestone at the Mandalay Bay Events Center sports and entertainment complex in Las Vegas on June 19.
Fans can vote for the winner by visiting NHL.com/oreeaward.
Here's a closer look at the three finalists:
Director, Clark Park Recreation Center
Anthony Benavides witnessed the demise of his neighborhood park in southwest Detroit during the city's financial crisis in the early 1990s, then got actively involved in its resurrection, with hockey as the centerpiece.
Working with a group of neighborhood residents and organizations known as the Clark Park Coalition, Benavides worked to have the rundown outdoor ice rink repaired and launched a free youth hockey program in the low-income, majority black and Latino community.
The once downtrodden and uninhabitable red-brick center now bustles with activity, with children being tutored or doing homework at computer stations. Outside, coaches put young hockey players through their paces on the rink.
"Just getting the nomination is great for me, great for the organization, great for promoting hockey up here in Detroit, Michigan, in Clark Park," Benavides said. "Hockey's for everyone, but especially in inner cities to underserved youth. That's where I fit in, trying to level the playing field for the hockey population here in Detroit."
The program outfits participants with new or donated skates and equipment. The only cost to participants is an annual $46 USA Hockey membership fee.
Under Benavides' leadership, the Clark Park program grew from about 80 youth hockey players in 2018 to 140 this year. Clark Park has evolved from a place to avoid to the place to be.
The rink had a mini-hockey tournament with other "Hockey Is For Everyone" programs, hosted the gold medal-winning United States Olympic women's hockey team, and the Detroit Red Wings have practiced there.
The hockey world has taken notice. In 2014 the NHL and the Detroit Red Wings Foundation donated a new ice resurfacer to Clark Park during the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, replacing a smoke-belching machine that was built in 1973.
Ellicott City, Maryland
Co-Founder, Players Against Hate
When Tammi Lynch learned that Divyne Apollon II, a black teenager who plays on her son's youth hockey team in Maryland, the Metro Maple Leafs, was taunted racially during a game, she didn't just get angry. She got organized.
Lynch designed stickers and buttons with the word "racism" with a red hockey stick slashed across it for players and supportive parents to wear.
The message caught on, with players from pee wee to the pros wearing the stickers on their helmets or placing it on their sticks.
Wanting to do more, Lynch helped form Players Against Hate, a movement she hopes will lead to concrete actions to stamp out racist actions and attitudes in the sport.
"I'm glad that people are taking notice that this is an issue and we need to make some change," Lynch said. "I'm hoping that this will help spotlight the work that we are trying to do."
Since starting Players Against Hate early this year, Lynch and the Metro Maple Leafs have interacted with other teams to spread the message that hockey is a welcoming sport for all.
They've played games against less-advantaged, mostly minority teams, like the Banners, a team that focuses on at-risk youth from East Baltimore.
"We are determined to increase the awareness and stop the racism and name-calling from youth athletes, their teams, coaches, families and spectators," she said. "We want to develop materials to teach the players, coaches, anyone involved in hockey, that hate has no place in the game."
Lynch has engaged in brainstorming conversations with other Washington-area hockey organizers about how to increase hockey opportunities for disadvantaged youths.
Flint Inner-City Youth Hockey Program
Phillips, a firefighter in Flint, formed the program in 2010 to expose kids between the ages of 8-11 to hockey and give them a sense of hope in an economically struggling city where hope often is in short supply.
Players receive free equipment, ice skating and hockey instruction during the nine-week program, held at Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center.
For Phillips, it's about giving back to his hometown.
"I'd say this is a medium-size town, Flint, Michigan, and not too many great things happen on the regular," he said. "Representing something so big in my community is awesome. We try to look past the clouds covering our city."
Phillips began the Flint program after doing research on O'Ree, who became the first black player in the NHL when he debuted with the Boston Bruins at the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958.
Like O'Ree, Phillips said he was a first: the only black hockey referee in Flint after being one of the few players of color.
"I felt lonely a lot of times," Phillips said. "I did some digging and I found that Willie was in charge of a cool thing that I thought would be cool for Flint, which is the cultural diversity task force they had in the 1990s."
Phillips has gotten buy-in for his program from Flint-area residents, elected officials and the business community.
Local high school hockey players from the surrounding suburbs serve as instructors. Perani's Hockey World, a Michigan-based company, provides Phillips' program equipment at cost. And Flint's Mass Transportation Authority provides free rides to get the kids to practice.
"It's a collaborative effort," Phillips said. "As the program has gone on I've gotten grants. The rest of it is basically volunteers. I have two credit unions in town that help subsidize because the one person who I do pay for is an on-ice instructor."
Phillips discovered that his program has produced an unexpected result: racial understanding between its participants and volunteers.
"Here are some suburban kids and some rural kids who had never interacted with people of color," he said. "It was clear, and they had some apprehension on their faces. The barriers get broke down. The inner-city kids aren't looking at them (volunteers) one way or another, they're looking for help to learn how to do this ice skating stuff, and the high schoolers are all of a sudden having fun like they've never had before. I've got an enrichment thing going on for our entire community."