Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Representatives Tom Emmer (MN-06), Mike Quigley (IL-05), Brian Higgins (NY-27), and John Katko (NY-24) re-introduced legislation to award barrier breaking hockey legend Willie O’Ree with the Congressional Gold Medal. O’Ree, known as the Jackie Robinson of ice hockey, was the first black player in the National Hockey League (NHL) and is a Hockey Hall of Fame inductee.
“Willie O’Ree is a legend and an icon. I have been a hockey player, coach, and fan most of my life, and I’ve seen the impact that Willie has had on the game that Minnesotans know and love. Willie is a pioneer in expanding the sport of hockey, and his efforts to increase access to the sport for individuals from every walk of life deserves recognition with the Congressional Gold Medal. Hockey should be accessible to everyone, and Willie has helped make that possibility a reality for so many. I am honored to co-sponsor this legislation to honor him with the Congressional Gold Medal. It’s time Willie receives the recognition he so rightfully deserves,” said Emmer.
“Willie O’Ree is more than just a hockey player. He is a champion for diversity, an inspiration to all players, and an advocate for making hockey more accessible to young people everywhere. Willie is a hero both on and off the ice for refusing to stop at breaking through barriers for himself,” said Quigley. “His groundbreaking journey through the NHL inspired hundreds of other players, both men and women, and laid the groundwork for Hispanic, Indigenous, and Asian players in the NHL, as well as the growth of the women’s game. He unequivocally deserves to be recognized for these accomplishments with the highest honor Congress has to offer.”
“Willie O’Ree will forever be a pioneer,” said Higgins. “As the first Black man to play in the NHL, his actions paved the way for social change and equality. Throughout his career, Willie consistently exhibited confidence in the face of challenge on the ice, and courage in the face of adversity off. After retiring, Willie’s work as the NHL’s first Diversity Ambassador allowed him to advocate for greater inclusion and diversity in hockey, promoting opportunities that would increase access for children of all backgrounds. I had the privilege of getting to know Willie through his charity hockey games, where he sought to open the sport up to a new generation of young players who might not otherwise have the opportunity. This Congressional Gold Medal honors the important progress made by Willie O’Ree and celebrates his legacy.”
“Willie O’Ree is a remarkable individual and is representative of values we cherish as Americans. When he broke the National Hockey League’s color barrier in 1958, he became a symbol of equality and opportunity for aspiring athletes of color. Willie is extremely deserving of the Congressional Gold Medal, our nation’s highest civilian honor, and it is a privilege to introduce this legislation with my fellow Congressional Hockey Caucus co-chairs,” said Katko.
"Willie's achievements have inspired generations of hockey players and fans and he has improved the lives of thousands of young people,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "Willie has made an important impact on our game and on our country. As momentum grows to honor Willie O'Ree’s achievements with the Congressional Gold Medal, we are excited and proud to see this legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives."
"Willie O'Ree has always been a personal hero of mine, and he absolutely deserves to be recognized as a national hero through the Willie O'Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act," said 11-season NHL veteran and NBC Sports Group analyst Anson Carter, who co-chairs the NHL's Player Inclusion Committee. "Willie's impact is felt by everyone who loves the game of hockey and everyone who believes in the values of diversity, perseverance, and service to others."
In 1958, Willie O’Ree was called up from the minors to play for the Boston Bruins, becoming the first black player in NHL history. He endured racism, bigotry, and prejudice from fellow players and fans alike. O’Ree rose above this adversity to play more than twenty-four seasons in the NHL and minor leagues. Following his professional hockey career, he became the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, where he 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.
The Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act has been endorsed by the National Hockey League, Bauer Hockey, Bridgestone, The Chemours Company, Discover, Dunkin’, Enterprise, Everfi, Fanduel, Franklin Sports, Gatorade, Geico, Great Clips, Honda, Jägermeister, Kraft Hockeyville, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), Marriott Bonvoy, Mass Mutual, MGM Resorts, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, New Amsterdam Vodka, Pepsi, PPG Industries, Inc., Pure Hockey, Rold Gold, Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), Sirius XM, Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), Ticketmaster, Upper Deck, and William Hill.
The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress’ highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. Past recipients have included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, and Winston Churchill.