WASHINGTON -- Willie O'Ree thought 2018 was a good year considering he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 12.
But O'Ree, who became the NHL's first black player on Jan. 18, 1958, with the Boston Bruins, is learning 2019 might be even better.
The 83-year-old native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, was honored Wednesday at a Black History Month celebration at the Canadian Embassy that was co-hosted by Canada's Ambassador to the United States, David MacNaughton, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
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Also present were members of the Congressional Hockey Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus, who plan to introduce legislation in the coming days proposing the Willie O'Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act.
"I think this gold medal thing is going to be one of the things I'll cherish for a lifetime," said O'Ree, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in the Builders category. "So many people have thought that I deserve this, so I'm real happy and real thrilled that I'm going to get the opportunity."
Video: O'Ree honored at Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded to those "who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient's field long after the achievement." Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts said support for O'Ree receiving it has been easy to find.
"As I was walking around the House floor soliciting co-sponsors for my petition to honor Mr. O'Ree with the highest honor that Congress can give to a civilian, which he is so deserving of, it just felt so good that we don't agree on everything, but we all agree on you, Willie," she said. "People were fighting and clamoring to sign that petition."
After retiring from hockey in 1979, O'Ree wanted to help others play the sport he loved. He been the NHL's diversity ambassador since 1998, focusing on the League's Hockey Is For Everyone Initiatives.
"I think it's no exaggeration to say Willie has touched the lives of more than 120,000 young people," Commissioner Bettman said, "taking the values of our game not to make young people fans necessarily, but to teach them life's lessons about hard work and teamwork and leadership and physical fitness and getting an education."
In a statement, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said,
"Willie O'Ree, just like hockey, is one of Canada's greatest exports. Mr. O'Ree spread a message of perseverance and hope through hockey. He led by example and encouraged countless other minority players to pursue their dreams while making the world of competitive sports more inclusive and diverse."
Before the ceremony, O'Ree stopped by the NHL Presents American Legacy Black Hockey History Tour mobile museum, which was parked outside the embassy. O'Ree also visited the mobile museum when he was in Philadelphia for the 2019 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Lincoln Financial Field last week.
Part of the reason for O'Ree's visit Wednesday was to meet with Divyne Apollon II, a defenseman on the 14-and-under Metro Maple Leafs, a travel team from Odenton, Maryland. The 13-year-old faced racial taunts during a game against a team from Pennsylvania during a youth hockey tournament Dec. 29.
"I just told him, 'You've got to kind of turn your ears off to it.'" O'Ree said. "It's hard to do. It is really is for some of these young boys and girls. Thanks to my older brother (Richard), he really helped me, but just go out and work hard and forget about that. If people can't accept you for the individual that you are at the time, then that's their problem and not yours."
Divyne didn't know he was going meet O'Ree, but his father, Divyne Apollon Sr., was in on the surprise.
"It was pretty great meeting the first black hockey player," Divyne II said. "I didn't really read up on him, but I did know that he was the first black hockey player in the NHL."
He plans to learn more about O'Ree now, though.
"Most definitely," he said.