Senate passes bill to award Congress’ highest honor to first Black NHL player
(CNN) — The US Senate passed legislation this week to grant Congress’ highest honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, to the first Black player to compete in the National Hockey League.
The bipartisan measure to honor Willie O’Ree unanimously passed the chamber on Tuesday. It now must be approved by the US House of Representatives for O’Ree to be awarded the medal.
Known as “the Jackie Robinson of hockey,” O’Ree, 85, broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958 with the Boston Bruins, one of six teams at the time.
Despite being blind in one eye from a previous hockey injury, O’Ree played in 45 games in the NHL with the Bruins, scoring four goals and recording 10 assists. He retired from the sport in 1979 at age 43. He has spent the past two decades as the NHL’s diversity ambassador, working to expand the sport.
O’Ree previously told CNN that while he understood the significance of fulfilling a personal career goal of playing in the NHL, he hadn’t realize in the moment that he had become the first black player in league history by stepping onto the ice.
“I didn’t realize that I was breaking the color barrier until I read it in the paper the next morning,” he said.
In every game he played in, O’Ree previously told CNN, he heard name calling from opposing players and from fans in the stands. “Besides being Black and being blind in my right eye, I was faced with four other things: racism, prejudice, bigotry and ignorance,” he said.
The legislation would award O’Ree the nation’s highest civilian award that Congress can bestow “in recognition of his extraordinary contributions and commitment to hockey, inclusion, and recreational opportunity.”
The bill was first introduced in 2019 by Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. They reintroduced the legislation in February.
In a statement, Stabenow called O’Ree a “trailblazer for young people across the country,” touting his work on the NHL initiative “Hockey Is For Everyone.”
“From the hockey arena to serving young athletes in his community, Willie O’Ree’s legacy has inspired generations,” Scott said. “Willie’s career didn’t end on the ice; it was punctuated by the generations of athletes he helped navigate the path he paved.”
“I look forward to the House acting quickly on this well-deserved recognition of Willie’s historic achievements,” the senator added.
O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 for his off-ice contributions to the sport. The Bruins retired O’Ree’s No. 22 jersey in February.
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