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Lawmakers push to honor Willie O'Ree, NHL's first black player

By
Andre Earls
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott meets with former NHL player Willie O'Ree in Washington, D.C., Thursday. O'Ree became the first black NHL player in 1958. Photo by Medill News Service
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott meets with former NHL player Willie O'Ree in Washington, D.C., Thursday. O'Ree became the first black NHL player in 1958. Photo by Medill News Service

July 26 -- South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has announced a push to award the United States' highest civilian cultural honor to a man who made history as the National Hockey League's first black player more than 60 years ago.

Scott is making the push in behalf of Willie O'Ree, who became the first African American to play in the NHL in 1958. The senator said he deserves the Congressional Gold Medal because of his trailblazing role in the 1960s.

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Scott and Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow filed a bill last month that would recognize O'Ree for "extraordinary contributions and commitment to hockey, inclusion, and recreational opportunity." A similar bill has been introduced in the House.

"Had I been here (in the Senate) 15 to 20 years ago, maybe we'd have done it then," Scott said Thursday. "But the good news is we're here today. ... My grandparents taught me a long time ago, 'Give them their roses while they're living.' And this man has not only earned it, we hope to see him continue to have a positive impact on young people throughout this country."

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O'Ree played for Canadian teams starting in the early 1950s, and lost sight in his right eye when he was hit by a puck. He played for the Boston Bruins in the 1957-58 season, entering his first NHL game on Jan. 18, 1958. Almost exactly three years later, he became the first black player to score an NHL goal on Jan. 1, 1961. O'Ree would eventually play for 14 more years for NHL and Canadian teams. Last year, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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O'Ree, now 83, said he often faced discrimination during his 1960-61 season with the Bruins, including a confrontation with an opposing player who taunted him.

"We got into an altercation and he butted me in the mouth knocking my two front teeth out." O'Ree said. "All I could think about was coming back to sit on the bench and support my team."

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Scott said O'Ree's career shows "in this country, all things are still possible. With goals, and clear focus and perspective on what you want to accomplish, you tell kids today that they can accomplish it now better than ever."

He also noted the timing of the bill.

"While our country is most polarized racially in politics, we see incredible leaps forward, and I'm just happy to be in a position where we can celebrate some of the success."

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