WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — After becoming the first black player in the NHL and then spending years reaching out to underprivileged kids, Hall of Famer Willie O’Ree may get one of the nation’s highest civilian honors.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., have introduced legislation to award O’Ree the Congressional Gold Medal.
O’Ree joined the Boston Bruins in 1958. The first black player in the NHL, he earned the nickname Hockey’s Jackie Robinson.
The helmets and faceguards common today were not then.
“I put a helmet on after I got hit over the head a few times,” O’Ree joked Thursday as he visited with Stabenow and Scott on Capitol Hill.
Stories like that make him laugh, but not every memory brings back a smile. He also recounted stories of the racism he faced.
“I just told myself, if I’m going to leave the league, it’s ’cause I don’t have the ability anymore. I’m not going to leave the league because there’s someone there that feels like he wants to try and agitate me,” he said.
His trailblazing opened doors for other minority players, but it’s his legacy off the ice that caught the senators’ attention. After 21 years of professional hockey, O’Ree retired and turned his attention to helping kids. For more than two decades, he has run programs that introduced more than 120,000 minority and underprivileged kids across the country to hockey.
“What makes this man very, very special is that he turned around and said, ‘How can I give back?'” Stabenow said. “That’s what we want. That’s the American spirit. That’s what it means really and truly to be a hero.”
Since its creation in 1776, the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal has been awarded to only eight athletes.
“I just feel great about it,” O’Ree said. “I feel I’ve been blessed.”