Known as “Hockey’s Jackie Robinson,” O’Ree, 85, broke the NHL color barrier in 1958 with the Boston Bruins, one of six teams at the time.
Despite being blind in one eye from a previous hockey injury, O’Ree played 45 NHL games with the Bruins, scoring four goals and registering 10 assists. He retired from the sport in 1979 at the age of 43. He has spent the past two decades as an NHL Diversity Ambassador, working to expand the sport.
O’Ree previously told CNN that while he understood the importance of achieving a personal career goal of playing in the NHL, he didn’t realize by the time he became the first black player in the NHL. league history upon entering the ice.
“I didn’t realize I was breaking the color barrier until I read it in the newspaper the next morning,” he said.
In every game he’s played, O’Ree previously told CNN, he heard name calling from opposing players and fans in the stands. “Besides being black and being blind in my right eye, I encountered four other things: racism, prejudice, bigotry and ignorance,” he said.
The law would bestow on O’Ree the highest civilian honor in the country that Congress can bestow “in recognition of his extraordinary contributions and his commitment to hockey, inclusion and recreational opportunities.”
The bill was first introduced in 2019 by Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. They reintroduced the legislation in February.
“From the hockey arena to serving the young athletes in his community, Willie O’Ree’s legacy has inspired generations,” said Scott. “Willie’s career didn’t end on the ice; it has been punctuated by the generations of athletes he has helped to follow the path he has mapped out.
“I look forward to the House moving quickly on this well-deserved recognition of Willie’s historic accomplishments,” added the senator.
CNN’s Jill Martin, Dan Kamal and Leah Asmelash contributed to this report.