Senate passes bill to award Congressional Gold Medal to first Black NHL player

Aaron Schwartz

The Senate has passed bipartisan legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Willie O’Ree, who was the first Black player in history to compete in the NHL.

Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who introduced the legislation back in February, announced the measure’s unanimous passage in the upper chamber on Tuesday. The bill now heads to the House for consideration. 

The passage comes after the pair first introduced the legislation, which seeks to honor the famed player for his significant contributions to the sports world, in 2019.

O’Ree, 85, who is also known as the “Jackie Robinson of hockey,” competed professionally for more than two decades after first entering the league in 1958 as a player for the Boston Bruins. 

At the time he joined the league, O’Ree was blind in one eye due to an injury he sustained two years before. Yet the talented athlete competed in more than 40 games while in the league until 1961 and continued to compete professionally for many years after. 

Decades later, the hockey legend was tapped as the league’s first diversity ambassador in 1998, and, in the years since, O’Ree has devoted his time to making a social impact with his Hockey is for Everyone youth hockey program.

So far, the program has supported more than 30 organizations that work to provide support to children from minority and underserved communities, including providing them with the chance to play hockey.  

“From the hockey arena to serving young athletes in his community, Willie O’Ree’s legacy has inspired generations,” Scott said in a statement.

Stabenow called O’Ree a “trailblazer for young people across the country.”

“He has also been a leader in the community, including his leadership through the Hockey Is For Everyone programs he championed in Detroit and around Michigan. Willie O’Ree has set an example for all of us as Americans,” she added. 

Jeremy M. Jacobs, chairman of the NHL board of governors and owner of the Boston Bruins, said the Bruins organization is proud of its relationship with O’Ree, whom he called “a tremendous figure in hockey both on and off the ice.”

Jacobs also commended Stabenow and Scott “for their steadfast effort in recognizing Willie’s enduring legacy and preserving it for generations to come with Congress’ highest honor.”

“Willie O’Ree has been committed to hockey for decades and his impressive list of accolades and achievements is reflective of his dedication to inspire young people across America,” said Kim Davis, NHL senior executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. 

Scott added he looks forward to the House “acting quickly on this well-deserved recognition of Willie’s historic achievements” following the legislation’s recent passage in the Senate.

Tags Debbie Stabenow Tim Scott
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