Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley announced plans at a Black History Month celebration this week to introduce legislation in Congress to award Black hockey Hall of Famer Willie O’Ree with the Congressional Gold Medal.
“As a lifelong hockey fan and player and chair of the Congressional Hockey Caucus, it is a pleasure to recognize the extraordinary hockey player, historic barrier breaker, and dedicated activist Willie O’Ree,” Quigley, a Democrat told NBC News. “He deserves fierce admiration for his achievements both off and on the ice, which is why in the coming days, the Hockey Caucus is excited to introduce the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act to formally recognize his outstanding career and life’s work.”
The Congressional Gold Medal is considered “the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions,” according to the Office of the Historian and the Clerk of the House’s Office of Art and Archives.
O’Ree, 83, debuted in the National Hockey League in 1958 as a player for the Boston Bruins. He was the first Black player in the NHL, paving the way for other athletes of color, and is often referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey.”
“Racism was evident for me, the taunts in the penalty box and threats were real,” he wrote in a recent op-ed for The Hill. “But rather than allowing these obstacles to slow me down, I used them as motivation to prove that I belonged on the ice among the greatest hockey players in the world.”
For more than 20 years, O’Ree has been mentoring athletes of color in his roles as NHL diversity ambassador and director of youth development. He was also instrumental in helping to start 39 local grassroots hockey programs, and was inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 in the Builders category.
In order to earn the Congressional Gold Medal, a person must be co-sponsored by two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives.
Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts spoke at the event honoring O’Ree, which was co-sponsored by the Embassy of Canada and the National Hockey League. Pressley told the audience that her fellow congressional leaders are all on board to celebrate the hockey legend.
“As I was walking around the House floor soliciting co-sponsors for my petition to honor Mr. O’Ree with the highest honor that Congress can give to a civilian, which he is so deserving of, it just felt so good that we don’t agree on everything, but we all agree on you, Willie,” she said at the event, according to an NHL.com story. “People were fighting and clamoring to sign that petition.”