House votes to award medal to Willie O’Ree, first Black NHL player

Former Boston Bruins' Willie O'Ree tips his hat as he is honored
Associated Press/Charles Krupa

The House on Wednesday cleared a bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to Willie O’Ree, the first Black man to play in the NHL.

Lawmakers passed the measure by a vote of 426-0, after the Senate previously passed it by unanimous consent in July.

O’Ree, who was born in Canada, became the league’s first Black player in January 1958 when he made his debut with the Boston Bruins in a game against the Montreal Canadiens.

The legislation, which now heads to President Biden’s desk, awards the Congressional Gold Medal “in recognition of his extraordinary contributions and commitment to hockey, inclusion, and recreational opportunity.”

“Blind in 1 eye and a victim of racism at times throughout his career, O’Ree persevered and played professional hockey for 22 years, tallying over 1,000 points,” the measure states.

Passage of the bill comes a day after the Bruins retired O’Ree’s jersey number — 22 —and raised a banner honoring him to the rafters of Boston’s TD Garden. O’Ree, now 86, took part in the ceremony remotely.

Lawmakers saluted O’Ree as a trailblazer who paved the way for more diverse representation in one of the nation’s most popular sports.

“Willie O’Ree was a young and fast left winger. But he could not out-skate the racist backlash in response to his desegregating the National Hockey League. 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,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), one of the main sponsors of the House version of the bill and whose district includes Boston.

“And despite it all, Willie embodied resilience, grace, dignity, and never gave up on the determination to live out his dream,” Pressley said.

Tags Ayanna Pressley Joe Biden

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