Heard on the Hill

NHL’s first black player deserves a medal from Congress, senators say

Stabenow, Scott want Willie O’Ree to get a Congressional Gold Medal

Sen. Tim Scott meets with Willie O’Ree, the first black player to compete in the National Hockey League, in Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s office on Thursday. Stabenow, who was running late, and Scott announced their bipartisan legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to O’Ree. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Willie O’Ree almost didn’t make the Hockey Hall of Fame. He almost didn’t even have a lasting professional hockey career.

For the first black player to compete in the National Hockey League, it nearly ended during his first trip to Chicago in 1960, his second year in the NHL. An opposing Blackhawks player made some incendiary racist remarks that Willie initially brushed off. But then things got physical and the two were ejected, with O’Ree getting his two front teeth knocked out for his troubles.

Forced to spend the remainder of the game in the locker room isolated from his team, O’Ree fumed and contemplated his future in hockey.

“I just sat down on the bench and meditated for about eight minutes, and I said, ‘You don’t need to take this type of abuse. You can go back to your hometown. You don’t need to be involved with this,’” he recalled at a Thursday press conference on Capitol Hill.

He was tired of being judged for his race, and not his ability on the ice.

“And then I just told myself, ‘If I’m going to leave the league, it’s because I don’t have the skills. I’m not going to leave the league because there’s somebody there that wants to agitate me and get me out of the game. I’m a better person than that.’”

O’Ree would go on to play 21 years of professional hockey, including two in the NHL for the Boston Bruins.

For integrating the NHL in 1958, Sens. Tim Scott and Debbie Stabenow want to honor O’Ree with the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest civilian awards in the United States.

So why now?

“Had I been here 15 or 20 years ago, we would have done it then,” said Scott, a South Carolina Republican. “My grandparents taught me a long time ago, give them their roses while they’re living.” 

The 83-year old Hall of Famer said he’s “been blessed” to have his career. He’s currently developing a documentary, and a publisher has reached out about writing another book.

The Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act needs to be sponsored by two-thirds of Congress before it can be considered by the banking committees in both chambers. If both panels approve, the measure would receive a floor vote.

Should he receive the medal, O’Ree would join recent winners such as 18-time PGA major champion Jack Nicklaus, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, and the foot soldiers of the 1965 Selma, Alabama, march for voting rights.

He’d also join former Major League Baseball legend Larry Doby as an honoree who helped integrate a major American sport. The first African American to play in the American League, making his 1947 debut for the Cleveland Indians just after Jackie Robinson started for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Doby was tapped late last year to receive the medal. The president signed that bill in December. 

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