January 19, 2022
Pressley Delivers Floor Speech on Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act
Transcript: Rep. Pressley’s Floor Speech on the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act
January 19, 2021
I rise in strong support of our bill, the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act, legislation which honors the historic career and life of service of the one and only Willie O’Ree.
With today’s vote in the People’s House, we honor a giant, and it has been an honor to be a steward in this effort.
Willie is a trailblazer, ice breaker, a hero, an activist, whose powerful story is unknown to too many. That ends here. Today, we change that.
64 years ago, in the midst of the fight to end Jim Crow, Willie O’Ree made history with the Boston Bruins by becoming the first Black player to play in the National Hockey League.
A descendant of enslaved people who escaped the horrors of slavery through the Underground Railroad, Willie was born and raised in New Brunswick, Canada and was the youngest of 13 children. His love of the game began at the young age of three where he earned his stripes playing alongside his older siblings.
Known as the Jackie Robinson of hockey, Willie played 45 games in the NHL and spent more than two decades playing professional hockey, all while hiding the fact that he was nearly completely blind in one eye.
Willie O’Ree was a young and fast left winger. But he could not out-skate the racist backlash in response to his desegregating the National Hockey League.
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.
And despite it all, Willie embodied resilience, Grace, dignity, and never gave up on the determination to live out his dream.
In the decades following his historic career on the ice, realize Willie has spent his time paying it forward to the next generation of icebreakers. As the NHL is Director of Youth Development and a Diversity Ambassador, he has worked to increase opportunities for young Black and brown players so that they too, can take their rightful place in the big league.
In 2018, Willie was formally inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame. And while his time with the Boston Bruins was short, his legacy lives on to this very day.
Earlier this week, Mayor Michelle Wu declared January 18 in the City of Boston, “Willie O’Ree Day,” marking the momentous day 64 years ago when Willie hit the ice and changed the game forever.
Just yesterday, the Boston Bruins formerly retired Willie’s number 22 Jersey, raising it up in the rafters at the Garden alongside other Bruins legends.
Mr. Speaker, Black history is American history, and today, we salute an American hero and inspiration.
Willie demonstrates for us the power of holding on to one’s dreams, an ice and ceiling breaker.
I would like to thank my esteemed colleagues, Representatives Quigley, Katko and Emmer, for their partnership, and the 290 colleagues who co-sponsored this piece of legislation in order to get it across the finish line.
My team and I have been working diligently, pushing and organizing since 2019, and this work would not have been possible without the support and partnership of the longtime grassroots activists who organized to ensure that Willie, who took up space, who created space, now takes his rightful space in our history books.
The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation and recognition. With this honor Willie will join history makers like Jackie Robinson, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, and the Tuskegee Airmen. Incredible company for an incredible man.
Willie O’Ree, now at the age of 86 years young, today, Willie O’Ree, we give you your flowers.