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Press Release

O'Ree documentary to premiere at film festival

'Willie' selected for Hot Docs 2019, will debut April 29

by NHL Public Relations @PR_NHL

O'Ree's story unfolds in "Willie"

"Willie" unwraps O'Ree's inspirational journey

"Willie" tells the remarkable story of Willie O'Ree, who broke hockey's color barrier in 1958 and inspired new generations to play the game

  • 04:16 •

NEW YORK/TORONTO -- Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, the largest documentary festival in North America, today announced the original documentary "Willie" has been selected by the festival, which receives more than 10,000 film submissions each year. The festival also announced "Willie" has been designated as "Hot Docs Special Presentations," which names approximately 30 documentaries each year out of the nearly 300 in the festival from around the world.

On Monday, April 29, the documentary will make its world premiere at Hot Docs 2019 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, the largest screening venue at the festival. "Willie" tells the incredible story of Willie O'Ree, who in 1958 became the first black man to play in the National Hockey League. 

The film features never-before-seen home movie footage, original interviews, and first-person accounts from friends and family across North America.

Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick in 1935, O'Ree began his journey as the youngest of 13 children. A multisport athlete, his career path originally pointed toward professional baseball. But after experiencing segregation first-hand during a tryout in the United States during the Jim Crow era, he reconsidered his options and returned to hockey.

O'Ree turned to hockey. Despite being blind in one eye from an injury he suffered in 1956 and kept secret throughout his playing career, he made it to the National Hockey League. On Jan. 18, 1958, O'Ree made his NHL debut, playing for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens in the fabled Montreal Forum. He would go on to play two seasons in the NHL and more than 20 seasons of professional hockey.

A trailblazer who paved the way for the players of diverse ethnic backgrounds who have succeeded him in the subsequent 60 years, O'Ree was named NHL Diversity Ambassador in 1998. In the two decades since, he has helped establish 39 local grassroots hockey programs and inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls to play the game in its many forms. On Nov. 12, 2018, having dedicated most of his life to hockey, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In association with the National Hockey League, the documentary was directed and produced by award-winning filmmaker, editor and producer Laurence Mathieu-Leger. It was produced by Bryant McBride, who sought out and hired O'Ree while working for the NHL more than 20 years ago.

Tickets to see "Willie" go on sale on Tuesday, March 26 at 11 a.m. ET. Tickets will be available for purchase at For more details about the documentary, visit

Video: "Willie" set to debut at Canadian film festival

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