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U.S. House votes to award Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal

The NHL's first Black player, Willie O'Ree, will be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal just days after having his No. 22 retired by the Boston Bruins.

One day after the Boston Bruins retired his No. 22, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to award Willie O’Ree the Congressional Gold Medal.

“Receiving the Congressional Gold Medal is simply one of the greatest honors of my life,” O’Ree said in a statement Wednesday. “There are no words to describe how special the last few days have been, with the Boston Bruins retiring my number and U.S. Congress voting for this amazing recognition. I will always be humbled and grateful to be a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, and I am especially thankful to everyone who worked so hard to make this moment happen.”

The Congressional Gold Medal is the “highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals or institutions.”

[MORE: O’Ree’s passion for growing game earns him Hockey Hall call]

Six months after the U.S. Senate passed the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act, the House voted 426-0 to honor O’Ree, 86, who became the first Black NHL player on Jan. 18, 1958. The bill now moves to the White House for President Joe Biden’s signature.

“As the sole black player in the NHL at the time, Willie endured relentless bigotry, racism, discrimination and even violence from fans and players, both on and off the ice,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, one of the bill’s main sponsors, before the House voted. “Despite it all, Willie embodied resilience, grace, dignity and never gave up on the determination to live out his dream.”

“His entire life, he fought to change that, during and after his career,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, another sponsor of the bill. “Hockey, the sports world and our country are better off because of his efforts.”

George Washington, the first U.S. president, was awarded the first Congressional Gold Medal in 1776 while Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. Past recipients include Roberto Clemente (1973); Jesse Owens (1988); Jackie Robinson (2003); and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King (2004).


Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.