By Cindy Himes
As the Pittsburgh Penguins organization joins the National Hockey League to salute Black History Month throughout February, we are deeply honored to pay tribute to Willie O’Ree for his vast contributions to our great sport.
The Penguins announced on February 18 the creation of the “Willie O’Ree Academy,” designed to provide unique training, social and mentorship opportunities for Black youth hockey players in the Pittsburgh region.
O’Ree broke the race barrier in the NHL as the league’s first Black player, playing two stints with the Boston Bruins in the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons. A testament to his talent and fortitude, he played his first NHL games in a 6-team league when only the very best made it to the big league.
His contributions to the game cannot be judged by simply reviewing stat sheets as his accomplishments have given promise to generations of young Black hockey players. Since breaking the glass ceiling in 1957, a total of 43 Black players have followed O’Ree’s path to play in the NHL.
What makes O’Ree’s journey to the NHL even more commendable is the fact that he had to overcome the handicap of being blind in his right eye; an injury he sustained in the minors with the Quebec Aces two years before being called up by the Bruins for his first NHL game.
O’Ree has worked as an Ambassador for the NHL’s Youth Diversity Program since 1998, enabling him to tell his story and inspire countless youth over the past 20+ years.
“Willie O’Ree has devoted his life to our sport and our young people, to diversity and inclusion,” stated NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement. “His words of encouragement, and the life lessons he has taught, have inspired thousands not only to play hockey; but to incorporate our game’s values and ideals into their lives.”
O’Ree has been honored with numerous awards for his contributions to the sport. In 2008, O’Ree received the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award for a Canadian citizen. He was honored as a pioneer of hockey and dedicated youth mentor in Canada along with the U.S.
In 2018, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and in 2020, he was again honored by his homeland with his induction into the Canada Sports Hall of Fame; both honors were in the Builder category.
In 2019, a bill in the 116th U.S. Congress authorized the award of the United States Congressional Gold Medal for O’Ree’s achievements, in recognition of his contributions and commitment to hockey, inclusion, and recreational opportunity.
In his honor, the NHL created the annual Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award in 2018 to “recognize the individual who has worked to make a positive impact on his or her community, culture or society to make people better through hockey.”
This year, O’Ree will be prominently honored by the NHL throughout Black History Month. All NHL players are wearing a commemorative helmet decal honoring O’Ree; and his former team, the Boston Bruins, have announced that they will retire his jersey Number 22 later this month.