WASHINGTON — A day after Willie O’Ree’s No. 22 was retired by the Bruins and raised to the rafters of TD Garden, the House of Representatives voted unanimously Wednesday to present him with another honor — the Congressional Gold Medal.
Both came in long-delayed recognition of his pathbreaking role as the first Black player in the National Hockey League. That historic moment took place more than six decades ago when the Bruins called up O’Ree from the minor leagues on Jan. 18, 1958.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers that includes Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston sought to mark that achievement by awarding the 86-year-old O’Ree with Congress’ highest honor. The Senate passed the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act last summer, and the House followed by approving the measure 426-0 on Wednesday. It now goes to President Biden for his expected signature.
Pressley emphasized the adversity that O’Ree faced, calling him an “icebreaker” although one who “could not outskate the racist backlash” he faced in desegregating the NHL.
“As the sole Black player in the NHL at the time, Willie endured relentless bigotry, racism, discrimination, and even violence from fans and players, both on and off the ice,” Pressley told her colleagues before the vote. “Despite it all, Willie embodied resilience, grace, dignity, and never gave up on the determination to live out his dream.”
Representative Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois and another leader in the gold medal effort, spoke about how all his childhood heroes were hockey players, and “at the time, they were all white.”
“His entire life, he fought to change that, during and after his career,” Quigley said of O’Ree. “Hockey, the sports world, and our country are better off because of his efforts.”
O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu declared Tuesday “Willie O’Ree Day.” The Congressional Gold Medal adds to his late-life recognition.
“Receiving the Congressional Gold Medal is simply one of the greatest honors of my life,” O’Ree said in a written statement to the Globe after watching the vote on C-SPAN from a hotel near his home in San Diego. “There are no words to describe how special the last few days have been, with the Boston Bruins retiring my number and US Congress voting for this amazing recognition. I will always be humbled and grateful to be a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, and I am especially thankful to everyone who worked so hard to make this moment happen.”
This will be the 12th time the Congressional Gold Medal has been presented to an athlete or group of athletes. O’Ree will follow in the footsteps of the 1980 US Summer Olympic Team, Jesse Owens, and Jackie Robinson, who was the first Black player in Major League Baseball.
The award was first given to George Washington, and it has since been presented to generals, entertainers, inventors, and foreign dignitaries. Other notable recipients include civil rights activists the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King; Dr. Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine; and singer Frank Sinatra.
Just before the House approved O’Ree’s medal, it passed by voice vote a bill to bestow the same honor on two World War II units — the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and the 3133rd Signal Services Company, known as the Ghost Army. They used tactical deception to fool and distract the German forces. Senate Ed Markey of Massachusetts was a leader of that legislation.
During his time in the NHL, O’Ree faced racism and bigotry from players and fans, but he recalled the acceptance of his Boston teammates.
“I will never forget how my teammates in the Bruins locker room accepted me as one of their own,” O’Ree said in a video message on Tuesday night. “This was a time when some of the fans and opposing players were not ready to see a Black man in the NHL.”
His NHL career was short, lasting a total of 45 games, but O’Ree has continued making an impact long past his last Bruins game in 1961 and retirement from professional hockey in 1979. He has served as the NHL’s diversity ambassador since 1998, leading the “Hockey Is For Everyone” initiative.
O’Ree has started 26 hockey programs for underrepresented and underserved communities that have introduced more than 130,000 children in North America to the sport. He has also spent nearly 2,500 days actively engaging with “Hockey Is For Everyone” participants and visited over 500 schools, community centers, and rinks to teach the sport’s values of commitment, respect, discipline, and education.
Haley Fuller can be reached at email@example.com.