O’Ree humbled by consideration for Congressional Gold Medal

WASHINGTON — Willie O’Ree met Thursday with the lead U.S. senators who sponsored a bill to award the NHL’s first black player the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.

“He’s earned it, we’re late in giving him the medal he has earned,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Debbie Stabenow D-Mich.

Scott and Stabenow said O’Ree is worthy of the honor not only for becoming the League’s first black player but for his post-playing career work as NHL diversity ambassador.

“He’s not only talented on the ice, breaking records, going in last November into the Hockey Hall of Fame, but what makes this man very, very special is that he turned around and said, ‘How can I give back, how can I inspire young people, how can I strengthen communities?’ Stabenow said. “That’s the American spirit, that’s what it means really and truly to be a hero, to be someone who should be honored and recognized at the highest levels by our Congress.”

Stabenow and Scott introduced their bill in late June. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a similar bill in May.

If the bills are approved, O’Ree would join a prestigious group of Congressional Gold Medal recipients that includes Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball, President George Washington, civil rights pioneer Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Wright brothers.

At least 67 of 100 senators must cosponsor the bill before it can be considered. In the 435-member House, at least two-thirds, or 290 lawmakers must co-sponsor the legislation.

O’Ree’s visit to Capitol Hill was part of the lobbying effort to get the requisite number of co-sponsors.

“This is new for us, I believe this is the first time we’ve used our legislative might to push for this kind of bill,” said Kim Davis, NHL executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives & legislative affairs, who accompanied O’Ree on the visit. “These honors are typically bestowed on athletes who have not only demonstrated great prowess from an athletic perspective, but, as importantly, for their contributions that they’ve made to civic life, community life, and helping to use that athleticism to build strong communities. And Willie absolutely represents that.”

O’Ree said he feels humbled by the congressional consideration, the latest in a string of accolades and acknowledgements he’s received lately.

The 83-year-old was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November for his off-ice accomplishments, which have helped cultivate a new generation of players and fans. He has assisted in establishing 39 grass-roots hockey programs, part of the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative, and has inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls to play the sport.

“Willie,” a documentary on O’Ree’s life, debuted in April at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, the largest documentary festival in North America.

“I’ve been blessed over the years with some of the things that have happened to me,” O’Ree told Stabenow.

O’Ree made history when he made his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens at the Forum. He played 45 NHL games during two seasons (1957-58, 1960-61), all with the Bruins.

But O’Ree had a lengthy pro career, mostly in the Western Hockey League, despite being blind in his right eye, the result of an injury sustained while playing junior hockey.

“Blind in one eye, you had a 24-year career in professional hockey, which I think it would be quite difficult to play the game with 20/20 [vision] from both eyes,” Scott said.

Scott, the Senate’s lone black Republican, noted that O’Ree is the descendent of an escaped slave from South Carolina, a detail discovered during research for the “Willie” documentary.

“As this country continues to evolve in the right direction, that in a time and day when there’s so much incivility, so much division and polarization, the one thing that you represent today, that you represented in 1958, that in this country, all things are still possible.”