WASHINGTON -- Willie O'Ree is on course to receive the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States Congress.
Members of the House of Representatives introduced a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to O'Ree, the first black player in the NHL. The bill, sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, lauds O'Ree for helping to integrate the NHL when he made his debut with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens at the Forum.
The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded to individuals or groups for distinguished achievements and contributions. Recipients include George Washington, the Wright Brothers, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, inventor Thomas Edison, civil rights pioneer Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Coretta Scott King.
"I think Mr. O'Ree is one of the underappreciated athletes of the 20th Century," Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who co-chairs the Congressional Hockey Caucus and cosponsored the measure, said Thursday. "The world is finally catching up to his achievements and his quiet resolve, to be a player and to do so with limited eyesight and to do so against the hatred and bigotry he had to face."
Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), the Congressional Hockey Caucus co-chair, said O'Ree is "a symbol of equality and opportunity for aspiring athletes of color" and deserving "of our nation's highest civilian honor."
Their sentiments were echoed by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who called O'Ree "a trailblazer, ambassador, and role model who has dedicated his life to the mission of inclusion and growing the game of hockey."
"There is no one more deserving of this tremendous honor than Willie O'Ree," Commissioner Bettman said.
O'Ree played 45 NHL games, all with the Bruins, during the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons. But he enjoyed a lengthy pro career, mostly in the Western Hockey League, despite being blind in his right eye, the result of a game injury sustained while playing junior hockey.
"Every game I played, there were racial remarks directed toward me: 'You should be back picking cotton. What are you doing in the white man's game,'" O'Ree said in the documentary "Willie" that premiered Monday at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
The bill states that the 83-year-old Fredericton, New Brunswick, native blazed a new trail when he became the NHL's first diversity ambassador in 1998. O'Ree's work with the League's Hockey is for Everyone initiative helped earn him induction in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.
"In this role as Diversity Ambassador with the NHL, O'Ree set to grow the sport by providing access, opportunity, and motivation for children of all races, ethnicities, origins, and abilities," the bill reads. "Through 'Hockey is for Everyone' programs, more than 120,000 boys and girls have been positively impacted. O'Ree has devoted nearly 2,500 days on the ground with the youth participants, visiting more than 500 schools, community centers, and rinks to speak to hockey's core values and beliefs; stay in school; set goals for yourself; remain committed and disciplined; and always respect your teammates, coaches and parents."
The bill's introduction is the first step toward the Gold Medal. At least two-thirds of the 435-member House, or 290 lawmakers, must cosponsor the legislation for it to be considered. At least 67 members of the U.S. Senate must cosponsor a companion bill.
"Though Congress doesn't agree on everything, we all agree on Willie," said Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Ma.), a co-sponsor of the bill. "He is the embodiment of resilience, grace, and dignity."