WASHINGTON—The effort to award former Boston Bruin Willie O’Ree the Congressional Gold Medal has skated to the edge of its goal to honor him as the first Black player in the National Hockey League.
The House of Representatives has reached the required 290 co-sponsors for a vote to present O’Ree with Congress’ highest honor, according to a bipartisan group pushing the legislation that includes Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston. The bill passed the Senate in July and the House could vote as early as next week, with the co-sponsors providing more than enough support for passage.
The Bruins are set to retire O’Ree’s number 22 on Tuesday, 64 years to the day he played his first NHL game. O’Ree, 86, won’t be at the ceremony due to concerns about COVID-19 and making the long trip from his home in San Diego, but he will be watching a video stream as his jersey rises to the rafters at TD Garden.
“Willie O’Ree is an extraordinary trailblazer, ice breaker, activist and inspiration to any player who has ever doubted their place in the big leagues,” Pressley said in a news release Wednesday announcing the co-sponsor threshold.
O’Ree became the NHL’s first Black player when he was called up from the minor leagues to play for the Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958. His NHL career was short, lasting 45 games between 1958 and 1960-61 season, but O’Ree played professional hockey until 1979.
On and off the ice, O’Ree faced racism and bigotry from players and fans. In a 1961 game against the Chicago Blackhawks, he endured a barrage of racial slurs and was hit with the butt-end of a stick, which caused him to lose two of his front teeth. A fight broke out, and O’Ree was escorted out of the rink by police for his safety.
The Congressional Gold Medal has been presented to athletes 11 times. Notable recipients include the 1980 United States Summer Olympic Team, runner and civil rights activist Jesse Owens, and Jackie Robinson, the first Black player in Major League Baseball.
O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018. Born Canadian, he was also awarded the Order of Canada, that country’s highest civilian honor.
“Saturday Night Live” star and former “The Mighty Ducks” actor Kenan Thompson has advocated for O’Ree to receive the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress.
“Willie may not be a role model we all knew when we were growing up, but I think he should have been, and will be, if we give him the recognition he deserves,” Thompson wrote in a 2021 essay on NHL.com.
O’Ree has been the NHL’s diversity ambassador since 1998, and has led the “Hockey Is For Everyone” initiative, which is geared toward making the rink an inclusive place for people of all identities, regardless of their race, color, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. O’Ree has helped create 26 hockey programs across the country to make the sport more accessible for those from underserved or underrepresented communities.
“He has paved the way for so many athletes—particularly young Black athletes—and I am thrilled that our bill to award him the Congressional Gold Medal is closer to passing the House of Representatives than ever before,” Pressley said.
Haley Fuller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.