Editor’s note: Momentum is growing to pass the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act, which would honor Willie with the highest civilian honor that U.S. Congress can give. In this first-person essay, Kenan Thompson reflects on why Willie’s story is deserving of the Gold Medal. More information is available at NHL.com/GoldMedal.
I didn’t know about Willie O’Ree when I was growing up.
My sports heroes were the guys I saw in prime-time games or weekend episodes of “Pro Stars,” you know, the ’90s cartoon with Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson and Wayne Gretzky.
But I recently learned about Willie and I have something to say: We need to pass the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act — S.452, introduced by Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Tim Scott, to honor Willie for his impact on sports and society.
[RELATED: Learn more about Willie O’Ree]
It’s crazy to me that Willie’s story is not more widely known. In 1958, he became the first Black player in the NHL. I can only imagine the determination it took for Willie to overcome the barriers and prejudice of the time while facing hateful stereotypes about Black athletes in hockey, and still earn his place in the NHL.
What makes Willie’s story even more incredible is that he accomplished it all while blind in one eye. I couldn’t believe this part when I heard it. Two years before Willie’s NHL debut, a puck accidentally struck his right eye and shattered his retina. Doctors said Willie would never play hockey again, but he didn’t listen. He kept his blindness a secret. And soon enough, he was playing for the Boston Bruins.
You can’t hear that story and not think of Willie as a role model for resilience, inclusion, and opportunity. I’ve thought a lot about these themes in reference to my own hockey connection, being part of “The Mighty Ducks” franchise. People from all different backgrounds have told me how much they love the Ducks (and the famed knuckle puck) because we were kids from a variety of cultures, income levels and skill levels who came together through the game of hockey.
I think the films resonate with people for the same reason that Willie’s story resonates with me. Everyone deserves equal opportunity to pursue the things that make them happy, no doors should be closed to people based on where they come from and hard work matters more than anything that doubters might say. These values are as American as the Declaration of Independence, which is why Willie, based on his achievements, is so deserving of a national recognition like the Congressional Gold Medal.
It also matters that Willie has actively created opportunities for kids across the country. Since 1998, as the driving force behind the “Hockey is For Everyone” initiative, he has helped build and support 26 grassroots hockey programs across 40 locations in North America for underrepresented and underprivileged boys and girls. Willie’s work has introduced more than 130,000 kids from diverse backgrounds to hockey, using the sport to teach confidence and character development. Amazingly, this is work he continues to do today, at 85 years old and still the Diversity Ambassador of the NHL.
It takes a special individual to spend so much time giving back. You have to wonder where Willie developed the determination to not only break barriers but keep pushing to help the next generation. Then I learned about Willie’s grandfather, Paris, who was born into slavery in South Carolina around 1764 and escaped to freedom in 1779 at 15 years old. With that piece of history, I felt like I understood. Determination runs in Willie’s blood. Despite every obstacle Willie faced, he persevered to play 45 games in the NHL, and then more than two decades of professional hockey in the minor leagues, followed by more than two decades of contributions to bring American communities together through access to sports.
Willie may not be a role model we all knew when we were growing up, but I think he should have been, and will be, if we give him the recognition he deserves. The Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor that Congress can give, is one very powerful way to recognize everything Willie stands for. It’s time to decorate Willie with the gold medal.