O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal bill to be voted on next week

Willie O’Ree‘s next step to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal could come next week, around the same time his No. 22 will be retired by the Boston Bruins.

The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the bill next week; House passage of the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act is the final legislative step for the NHL’s first Black player to receive Congress’ highest honor.

The U.S. Senate passed the measure on July 27, 2021. Once the bill passes the House, it will go to the White House for President Joe Biden to sign.

“I am proud to bring the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act to the floor next week,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland. “Willie O’Ree broke barriers on and off the ice as the first Black player in the NHL, and his story is an inspiration to athletes worldwide. I’m glad to see him garner the recognition he deserves and look forward to a broad, bipartisan vote in support of this important measure.”

[RELATED: Learn more about Willie O’Ree]

The House is voting on the bill after its supporters earlier this week secured the 290 cosponsors required in the 435-member chamber for it to proceed.

“As a lifelong hockey fan, player and coach, Willie’s legacy is captivating and inspiring,” said Rep. Tom Emmer, a Republican from Minnesota. “I am proud to co-lead the legislation to honor Willie with the Congressional Gold Medal and give him the place in history he deserves.”

Sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, the bill praises O’Ree for helping to integrate the NHL when he debuted with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum.

“When I first learned about the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act, my family and I believed it was an incredible honor to even be considered for such a special recognition,” O’Ree said. “Now, hearing the news that the Act will receive a final vote and is expected to pass, we could not be more grateful. I am so humbled and appreciative of everyone who supported me throughout this process.”

O’Ree’s No. 22 jersey will be retired at TD Garden on Tuesday before the Boston Bruins host the Carolina Hurricanes.

“I am thrilled that our bill to award him the Congressional Gold Medal is closer to passing the House of Representatives than ever before,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat from Massachusetts. “We’ve been fighting hard to get this bill across the finish line, and I thank Congressman [Mike] Quigley (Democrat from Illinois) and our colleagues for their partnership in this effort.”

The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded to individuals or groups for distinguished achievements and contributions. Recipients include George Washington, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Jackie Robinson, Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

“The NHL is thrilled to see the U.S. House of Representatives take an important step toward recognizing the incredible social and cultural contributions of our friend Willie O’Ree,” said Kim Davis, NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Social Impact, Growth Initiatives and Legislative Affairs. “For decades Willie has been an opportunity icon for children of color, for those with physical disabilities and for all those who are in pursuit of their dreams. We look forward to celebrating Willie O’Ree this year, as his jersey is retired to the rafters in Boston and as he inches closer to receiving the Congressional Gold Medal.”

O’Ree played 45 NHL games over two seasons (1957-58, 1960-61) with the Bruins and scored 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) despite being legally blind in his right eye, the result of an injury sustained playing junior hockey.  

But he had a lengthy pro career, mostly in the old Western Hockey League, where he scored 639 points (328 goals, 311 assists) in 785 games with Los Angeles and San Diego.

O’Ree was named the NHL’s diversity ambassador in 1998. He has helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs and inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls to play the sport.

O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, largely for his off-ice accomplishments that helped inspire a new generation of players and fans. His life story was chronicled in an award-winning documentary, “Willie,” released in 2019.

A life-size bronze statue of O’Ree highlights a Black hockey exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

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