Congressman Brian Higgins announced the passage of S. 452, the Willie O'Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act. The bill, co-led by Higgins and Congressman Mike Quigley – who serve as co-chairs of the Congressional Hockey Caucus – honors the legacy of the first Black player in the National Hockey League, Willie O’Ree, by providing him with the Congressional Gold Medal.
“During his time in the NHL, Willie O’Ree was an incredible talent that broke barriers, earning him a well-deserved spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame,” Higgins said. “Willie’s dedication, however, did not end there. Off the ice, Willie worked as the NHL’s first Diversity Ambassador, fighting for greater inclusion and diversity in hockey, while promoting opportunities to increase access to the sport for children. This Congressional Gold Medal honors the important progress made by Willie O’Ree as the first Black player in the NHL, and celebrates his legacy.”
Quigley said, "Just last week, we hit 290 cosponsors, and today this legislation has passed the House, and will be sent to the president’s desk. This is a tremendous day of celebration and also acknowledgement of the extraordinary life Mr. O’Ree has led. I am thankful to House leadership for heeding our call and giving this bill the vote it deserved. Most importantly, I would like to thank Willie O’Ree for the example he has set and the opportunities he has opened for young people to not only get involved in hockey, but to know that barriers are meant to be broken.”
In 1958, when O’Ree was called-up from the minors to play for the Boston Bruins, he endured racism, bigotry and prejudice from both players and fans. Despite these challenges, O’Ree continued to show extraordinary athleticism and grace, spending more than 24 seasons as a professional hockey player in both the NHL and minor leagues. During his time as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, O’Ree established the “Hockey is For Everyone” initiative to offer marginalized and disadvantaged children an opportunity to play hockey, create community, and develop important life skills.
In 2012, Hasek’s Heroes and the Buffalo Sabres hosted Willie O’Ree Skills weekend in Western New York. O’Ree visited Buffalo for the event and joined Higgins at Bud Bakewell Rink in Riverside Park to speak with the youth participants.
The Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act, introduced in the House in May 2019, has been endorsed by the NHL, NHL Players’ Association and USA Hockey.
The bill passed the Senate in July. Last week, Higgins announced the legislation had reached the threshold of 290 bipartisan cosponsors, permitting it to be voted on in the House of Representatives.