VINEYARD HAVEN, Mass. -- "Willie," the documentary chronicling the life of Hockey Hall of Famer Willie O'Ree, was screened Thursday before an audience of movers and shakers on Martha's Vineyard.
Washington Capitals part-owners Sheila Johnson and Earl Stafford hosted the event, hoping to generate buzz for the film.
Johnson, who co-founded Black Entertainment Television and owns the Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg, Virginia, and Stafford, CEO and founder of The Wentworth Group LLC, a Virginia-based private equity and consulting firm, assembled an audience that resembled a who's who in the worlds of sports, politics, business and education.
Guests included Mona Sutphen, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff under Barack Obama; Clyde Williams, a former adviser to Obama and President Bill Clinton; John Thompson III, vice president of player development and engagement in Monumental Basketball; and Kenneth Shropshire, CEO of the Global Sports Institute at Arizona State University.
"This is such a diverse, well-educated, well-heeled crowd, and I think this will really show what a special movie this is. It's different than anything they've ever watched," Johnson said. "Hockey has never been on their radar screen, and I think by showing this movie it will now draw attention to hockey and draw attention to how great Willie O'Ree is. That's what's really important. I mean, this man is really the giant in hockey, as far as I'm concerned."
The documentary gives historical context and personal insights about the man who overcame racial prejudice and blindness in his right eye 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.
"I thought it was an incredible film, a story that I'm ashamed I didn't know," said Thompson, a former Georgetown University men's basketball coach. "I learned so much about a man who broke barriers, who opened doors. And I think myself, along with a lot of people who are leaving here today, are going to champion not just this film, but champion Willie. It's an honor to be in his presence and an honor to start to learn his story."
The film reveals that O'Ree didn't just integrate hockey. He integrated his local barbershop while growing up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, after asking why he couldn't get his hair cut there like everyone else.
Director Laurence Mathieu-Leger and producer Bryant McBride, a former NHL executive, also discovered that O'Ree's family history goes back to Charleston, South Carolina, and a slave who escaped a plantation and made his way to eastern Canada.
"Having the opportunity to go down to South Carolina and actually see the books and read the names that are in the books, I really had tears in my eyes at the time," O'Ree said during a post-screening Q&A session. "My ancestors, I had no idea who they were or where they came from. It opened my eyes and I'm much appreciative of the work that Laurence has done to give this back to me in my life."
O'Ree's life also mirrored the turbulent and changing times of the civil rights era in the United States. As a teenager, he met Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson in 1949 and surprised the man who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier by telling him that he played hockey.
O'Ree had professional baseball aspirations that were quickly doused after he experienced Jim Crow-era racism during a 1956 tryout with the Milwaukee Braves in Waycross, Georgia. The unpleasant experience made him focus on hockey. He reached the NHL despite losing vision in his right eye, the result of a hockey injury that he kept secret.
His NHL career was brief: 45 games during the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons, scoring 14 points (four goals, 10 assists).
But O'Ree enjoyed a lengthy and prolific minor-league career, playing primarily for San Diego and Los Angeles in the old Western Hockey League. He had 639 points (328 goals, 311 assists) in 785 WHL games from 1961-74.
O'Ree was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 for his accomplishments off the ice, including his work across North America as NHL Diversity Ambassador. In more than two decades he has helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs and inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls to play the game.
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are seeking to recognize O'Ree's achievements through legislation to award him the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.