When Willie O’Ree skated onto the ice in a Boston Bruins uniform on January 18, 1958 he broke a barrier, the color barrier. Descended from escaped slaves, Willie became the first black player to skate in the National Hockey League, and his story should be as familiar to every young hockey player as the story of one of Willie’s heroes, Jackie Robinson. It can be now.
Willie’s remarkable journey in not one but two careers with the NHL is beautifully told in the documentary, Willie.
In 1958, when America was confronting the legacy of Jim Crow and birthing the civil rights movement, Willie played in the first of his 45 games in the NHL and 22 years of minor league hockey. Willie played all of those games without telling anyone but his sister that he was blind in one eye. After his playing career ended, Willie sold cars, managed fast food restaurants and worked security at a hotel in California.
In 1994, then NHL executive Bryant McBride located Willie and invited him to embark on his second NHL career, at age 60, as an ambassador for what is now, the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign. Now 85 years old, Willie hasn’t stopped inspiring young people to believe in themselves - in his words, “work hard and be all you can be.” The film tracks the campaign to elect Willie to the Hockey Hall of Fame, you will have to watch the film to see how that works out.
Resilience. Determination. Inspiration. Willie is a hero. There are more heroes in his story. Thanks to Jackie Robinson, Willie O’Ree, Bryant McBride, and more - barriers continue to break.
PCA’s “WATCHING WILLIE” INITIATIVE
Positive Coaching Alliance has partnered with the filmmakers, the NHL, and education leaders to help promote social and emotional learning through meaningful conversations about Willie as part of the international Willie Impact Initiative. Ask your young athletes to:
Make a short video or write a short note about Willie’s impact on them.
Share a meaningful moment,
Share how it made them feel, or
Share a lesson they learned.
Submit it to PCA here by March 1.
Your young athletes’ videos or notes could be selected to appear on our website and social media, and could be selected for an award from the NHL or the Boston Bruins.
Parents, Coaches, Leaders: take a look at the Educator's Guide, sign your students/players up for live chats with athletes and film-makers, and more at lessonsfromwillie.com.
Players: Film a 55-second video or write a one-page note sharing a meaningful moment from Willie, how Willie made you feel, and/or the lessons you learned from Willie.
Submit your video or note here by March 1 for the chance to see it on our website, social media, and even receive an award. Here are the details: