SUNRISE, Fla. — Attendees of the 2021 Amerigol LATAM Cup were captivated Wednesday as they watched “Willie,” the documentary about the NHL’s first Black player.
Players and coaches representing Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela and other Latin American and Caribbean countries filled a hotel ballroom for a special screening of the 2019 film that chronicles Willie O’Ree’s life from his boyhood in Fredericton, New Brunswick, to his 2018 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
After the film, attendees heard from Al Montoya, the Dallas Stars’ director of community outreach who became the NHL’s first Cuban American player when was a goalie for the Phoenix Coyotes in 2008-09.
“This was great because we heard and saw pieces of history,” said Robert Osa, a 45-year-old forward/defenseman on Venezuela’s Division I men’s team. “Willie O’Ree, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, they were pioneers in their sports as far as opening doors for other ethnicities to play. For us, playing hockey opens doors because when a lot of people think of Venezuela they probably think about baseball or soccer, not hockey at all.”
More than 500 players on 29 teams are participating in the four-day tournament that begins Thursday at the Florida Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, Florida.
Juan Carlos Otero, president of the Amerigol International Hockey Association, said he felt it was important to show the film at the tournament because of the parallels between what O’Ree encountered and what they go through trying to play in some countries that don’t have ice rinks.
“Viewing Willie’s story and seeing the challenges that he faced and how he overcame them and where he’s at now gives them hope,” Otero said. “And hearing Al Montoya’s story … it’s just going to show them that the door is open to everyone.”
“Willie” provides insight into how O’Ree overcame racial prejudice and blindness in his right eye, the result of an injury sustained in junior hockey, to become the NHL’s first Black player when he joined the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958 for a game against the Montreal Canadiens in Montreal.
O’Ree had a brief NHL career: 45 games during the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons, scoring 14 points (four goals, 10 assists). But he enjoyed a lengthy and prolific minor-league career, finishing with 639 points (328 goals, 311 assists) in 785 games, primarily with San Diego and Los Angeles of the Western Hockey League.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 for his accomplishments off the ice, including his work across North America as NHL Diversity Ambassador. He has helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs and inspired more than 120,000 boys and girls to play the sport.
Congress is poised to award O’Ree the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor it can bestow. The Senate recently passed a bill to award the medal that’s been awarded to Robinson, George Washington, the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King and others have received.
The bill awaits consideration in the House of Representatives. The House must follow the U.S. Senate and act on the bill for O’Ree to receive the medal.
Montoya made history when he was selected by the New York Rangers with the No. 6 pick of the 2004 NHL Draft. He went 67-49-24 in 168 games (136 starts) with six NHL teams before retiring after the 2017-18 season.
Montoya applauded LATAM Cup participants for being ambassadors for helping grow the sport in their respective countries.
“I kind of want to pass the torch on, but I guess it’s already passed on, and I want to help you all play more hockey,” he said.