ESPN has iced a deal for Willie, a documentary film about the remarkable life of the National Hockey League’s first black player. ESPN2 will have the TV premiere of the pic about Willie O’Ree on February 17, and the Worldwide Leader’s digital outlets will offer it throughout this Black History Month.
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.
Said Bryant McBride, who produced the docu with its director, Laurence Mathieu-Leger: “While Willie’s dedication to the sport of hockey and to helping others has helped so many already, our hope is that this partnership with ESPN will ensure that his work has generational impact across the sports world and beyond.”
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. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, and at 84, O’Ree loves to say that his work is not done.
The film won multiple awards during its festival run, including Best Sports Documentary at the Downtown LA Film Festival, and was a top five Audience Favorite at Hot Docs.
“Given the impact Willie has made — and continues to make — on the game, we’re excited to bring his story to the forefront on our platforms,” said Brian Lockhart, ESPN Executive Producer for Original Content. “His journey is a great example of the meaningful and impactful stories we appreciate and love to tell.”