The NHL is honouring hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree, the first black player to suit up in the league, with a new award recognizing those who have positively impacted their community.
Announcing the new award on Tuesday, the NHL put out a call for fans to submit nominations for The Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, looking to highlight those who have “demonstrated an impressive record of leadership, collaboration or behavior that has transcended the sport, improving lives and helping others reach their potential.”
Three finalists will be chosen by a committee, which includes O’Ree, before the public will be given a chance to vote on a winner in late May. The eventual winner will be unveiled at the 2018 NHL Awards in Las Vegas on June 20.
“This award aims to recognize community heroes who seize everyday opportunities to make better people through hockey,” the league said via a statement on the new honour. “Nominees for the award may include, but are not limited to: players, parents, siblings, coaches, referees, administrators, volunteers and rink owners and operators.”
O’Ree, who became the league’s first black player when he took the ice for the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958, wasn’t aware of the NHL’s intention to pay tribute to him.
“It was a total surprise,” O’Ree said Tuesday, according to NHL.com’s Jon Lane. “When [Gary Bettman] called, I didn’t know. I asked, ‘Commissioner Bettman, what’s going on?’ He came out and said, ‘Yeah, it’s what the NHL really wanted to do. I was very honored.”
Since 1998, O’Ree has continued his work for the league as its Director of Youth Development, and its ambassador for NHL Diversity.