EXCLUSIVE: The success of recent documentaries about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers proves that people are craving heroes right now. Enter Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday.
He is the subject of Willie, an upcoming feature-length docu whose executive producer Bryant McBride says is “10 percent about hockey and 90 percent about life.” Watch a teaser trailer above.
The man’s story is as improbable as it is impressive. O’Ree’s great-grandfather escaped slavery in 1778, and the family still has the original parchment document of his sale.
A native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, O’Ree shattered the NHL’s color barrier with the Boston Bruins in 1958, amid the birth of the Civil Rights movement and the struggle to end Jim Crow. Although he had to deal with racist taunts by fans and some opponents, he was welcomed by teammates and management.
His debut came two years after losing an eye to a slap shot — a secret he kept for more than two decades. O’Ree played just 45 NHL games and ended up toiling 22 seasons in the minors, spending most of his last 15 in Southern California and playing into his 40s.
O’Ree was out of the game for 16 years before being hired in 1994 by McBride, then the NHL’s VP business development, to be the league’s diversity ambassador. And at 83, O’Ree loves to say that his work is not done.
Much of that work is with youngsters, and McBride stressed O’Ree’s authenticity. “Kids can smell a phony,” he told Deadline. “I’ve watched him walk into hundreds of rooms, and kids go, ‘Wow, this guy’s important – he’s the Jackie Robinson of hockey.'”
Since rejoining the league as an ambassador a quarter-century ago, O’Ree “has been traveling the country just being the Pied Piper of hockey,” McBride said. “He’s been helping kids get access to the game – especially disadvantaged kids but kids of all colors, all backgrounds. He’s had a generational impact on the game.”
How’s this for authentic? O’Ree received Canada’s highest civilian honor, the Order of Canada, in 2008, and on his wall is a large picture of him being presented the award by the prime minister. Right next to it are two plaques — for being employee of the year as a security guard at the Hotel Del Coronado. “That’s who he is,” McBride said.
He’s also Willie O’Ree: hockey pioneer. McBride said the film notes that today’s black players “revere him and call him to help them deal with some of the stuff they go through. But there’s also footage in the movie about Willie helping 10-, 11-, 12-year-old kids who were called names on the ice, and how he reaches out to them unsolicited when he hears something happened.”
Among the many notables interviewed for the documentary are hockey luminaries Wayne Gretzky — who calls O’Ree the most mentally tough person he’s ever met — NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Philadelphia Flyers All-Star Wayne Simmonds and National Women’s Hockey League star Kelsey Koelzer, along with Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Willie director-producer Laurence Mathieu-Legere’s filmmaking team is composed entirely of women and minorities. Along with McBride, who was the NHL’s first black VP, the film is executive produced by Ted Leonsis, BET co-founder Sheila Johnson and Earl Stafford, in association with the NHL and JPMorgan Chase. McBride noted that securing financing for the project wasn’t exactly a grueling process. “The money was raised for this film in three hours,” he said.
“Willie O’Ree’s place in hockey history and the impact he’s had on growing the game is truly inspirational,” said NHL Chief Content Office and EVP Steve Mayer. “Willie’s commitment to hockey is matched only by his dedication to encouraging young people to follow their dreams. He is a true ambassador of the game, and we’re proud to be able to help tell his incredible story of perseverance, community, patience and resilience.”
The film culminates with O’Ree’s induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and Monday’s ceremony will be a part of it.
“The broad arc of the story is Willie’s climb to the pinnacle of his profession, into the Hall of Fame,” McBride said. “But it also is current and historical context around friendship, around perseverance, around integration, around opportunity.”
It’s the perfect time for Willie O’Ree’s story to be told — and, as McBride noted, “The word is, the whispers on this one are going to be strong.”