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O'Ree documentary screened by U.S. Congress members

Lawmakers weigh legislation that would award NHL pioneer Congressional Gold Medal

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- "Willie," the documentary about the life and times of Willie O'Ree, was screened before a potentially impactful audience Wednesday: members of the U.S. Congress and their staffs on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers from the House of Representatives and Senate attended the screening while they weigh legislation to award O'Ree, who was the NHL's first black player, the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.

"I think seeing the movie is really important, knowing about the movie, seeing the trailer is important," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., a co-sponsor with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C, of the Senate resolution that would honor O'Ree. "The more people understand his story, the more excited they will be in helping us get this done."

Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., a co-sponsor of the House bill, said the movie will teach lawmakers and their staffs that O'Ree deserves to be recognized.

"The more you get to know his story, the more that you understand that he was a true hero, not only for Canadian hockey but for American hockey too," said Stauber, a member of the Congressional Hockey Caucus. "He is the athlete that we want to bring up, that we want to promote because of what he's done in his life and the character that he has."

Each bill needs more co-sponsors before it can proceed. At least 67 of 100 senators must become co-sponsors for the Senate version of the bill to be considered. In the 435-member House, at least two-thirds, or 290 lawmakers, must co-sponsor the legislation.

"I think this presentation will help along those lines," said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a House bill co-sponsor and co-chair of the Congressional Hockey Caucus. "We're going to make sure every member has an opportunity to see it in one form or another."

"Willie" chronicles the story 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 at the Montreal Canadiens.

O'Ree had a brief NHL career: 45 games during the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons, scoring 14 points (four goals, 10 assists). But he had 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 November 2018 for his accomplishments off the ice, including his work across North America as the NHL's diversity ambassador. 

In that role, he's helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs and over two decades and inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls to play hockey.

The screening Wednesday was hosted by the NHL and FiscalNote, a global technology and media company, as part of a series of events to address diversity and inclusion in hockey and society.

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