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Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award

In 2018, the NHL announced its newest award, the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award. The recipient is an individual who has positively affected his or her community, culture or society through the game of hockey.

Nominees for the award come from the fans. U.S. and Canadian citizens 13 years old and up are eligible. NHL employees (including current and former players) are not eligible, although they are free to nominate eligible individuals. After nominations are closed, a committee (that includes Willie O’Ree himself) selects three semifinalists, with the winner determined by public voting. Here are the official rules for the Willie O’Ree Award, which includes all the details.

The first winner, chosen by a committee from nominees submitted by fans, was Darcy Haugan, coach of the Humboldt Broncos, a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League team that was involved in a horrific bus accident in which 16 people were killed, including Haugan. Haugan was a highly respected coach who had a lasting impact on his players, family, friends and community. As noted in his official Willie O’Ree Award submission:

“Darcy Haugan left a lasting impact on his community of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, on every community which was fortunate enough to have him as a resident, and on junior hockey. He changed the lives of many of his players, always being there for each one of them and never hesitating to give them a second chance, because Darcy never gave up on anyone. He fought for his team and had their backs - he was the coach and mentor everybody wanted.”

The other two semifinalists for the inaugural Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award:

  • Debbie Bland, from Etobicoke, Ontario. Debbie has been a tireless contributor to advancing women’s hockey and improving young women’s character through the game.
  • Neal Henderson, who created what is now the oldest minority ice hockey program in North America. Located in Washington, D.C., the Fort Dupont Hockey Club has helped generations of disadvantaged youth learn hockey and build character.

First Black Hockey Player in the NHL — Willie O’Ree

Many fans wonder who was the first black NHL player. It’s Willie O’Ree, the man for whom the new NHL award is named. Born in 1935 in New Brunswick, O’Ree played his first NHL game in 1958 as a winger for the Boston Bruins. In all, he played for two seasons with the Bruins, but played professional hockey — mainly in the WHL — from 1950 to 1979. O’Ree recorded 328 goals and 639 points in his 13-season WHL career. He accomplished all of this despite losing sight in one eye when he was a child.

O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018; he was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984. He received the Order of Canada — the highest honor a Canadian citizen can obtain — in 2008.

O’Ree, the first black hockey player in the NHL, is the official Diversity Ambassador for the NHL, having held this position since 1998. Among his many roles, O’Ree is highly involved with the league’s Hockey is for Everyone™ initiative, aimed at helping disadvantaged youth to learn about and play hockey.