Legislation to award hockey legend WIllie O'Ree with the Congressional Gold Medal will be introduced in Congress in the coming weeks, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., said at a Black History Month celebration Wednesday.
“As a lifelong hockey fan and player and chair of the Congressional Hockey Caucus, it is a pleasure to recognize the extraordinary hockey player, historic barrier breaker, and dedicated activist Willie O’Ree,” Quigley told NBC News. “He deserves fierce admiration for his achievements both off and on the ice, which is why in the coming days, the Hockey Caucus is excited to introduce the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act to formally recognize his outstanding career and life’s work.”
O’Ree, 83, made his National Hockey League debut in 1958 as a player for the Boston Bruins. He is often referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey” and was the first black player in the NHL.
O’Ree paved the way for other athletes of color throughout his professional athletic career.
“Racism was evident for me, the taunts in the penalty box and threats were real,” he wrote in a recent op-ed for The Hill. “But rather than allowing these obstacles to slow me down, I used them as motivation to prove that I belonged on the ice among the greatest hockey players in the world.”
Since 1998, O’Ree has mentored athletes of color in his roles as NHL diversity ambassador and director of youth development. He has also helped establish 39 local grassroots hockey programs and was inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 in the Builders category.
The Congressional Gold Medal is considered “the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions,” according to the Office of the Historian and the Clerk of the House’s Office of Art and Archives. In order to earn the award, a person must be co-sponsored by two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives. Past honorees include George Washington, Elie Wiesel and Jackie Robinson.
Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts spoke on O’Ree’s behalf at the event, which was co-sponsored by the Embassy of Canada and the National Hockey League. She, too, made history when she became Massachusetts’ first black woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018.
"As I was walking around the House floor soliciting co-sponsors for my petition to honor Mr. O'Ree with the highest honor that Congress can give to a civilian, which he is so deserving of, it just felt so good that we don't agree on everything, but we all agree on you, Willie," she said at the event, according to a NHL.com story. "People were fighting and clamoring to sign that petition."