The Royal Canadian Mint is dedicating this year’s black history month coin to NHL trailblazer Willie O’Ree.
O’Ree made history when he put on his Boston Bruins jersey and stepped onto the ice in the old Montreal forum on January 18, 1958. He became the first black athlete to play in the NHL and, in so doing, inspired generations of others from diverse backgrounds to chase their dreams in sport and life.
The Royal Canadian Mint is celebrating this year’s black history month by immortalizing his accomplishments on a 99% pure silver coin unveiled in Ottawa, Tuesday.
“There are opportunities, you just have to take it upon yourself,” said O’Ree. “There are goals that you need to set for yourself, but the opportunity is there, all you have to say is ‘hey I can go for it and work towards it’ there is no substitute to hard work you only get out of it what you put into it.”
Willie was called up as a short term replacement at the time of his 1958 debut. He went on to play 43 more games for the Boston Bruins during the 1960-61 season. He had to face not just his opponents but also the racist taunts from players and fans alike. O’Ree played 14 more seasons in the minors before retiring. He returned to the NHL in 1998 as an ambassador for diversity; a role that he continues to perform today.
Alex Reeves from the Royal Canadian Mint said “We started last year with Viola Desmond, and this year we were looking for another pioneer, groundbreaker who really made a positive difference to Canadian society and going from the experience of Viola Desmond and her courageous stand against discrimination in Nova Scotia we looked at a different avenue where rights and inclusion were played out. The story of Willie O’Ree was extremely inspiring as the first black player in the NHL and a Canadian to be doing that.”
His coin, limited to a mintage of 5,000, sells for a hundred dollars and is available at Royal Canadian Mint Boutiques, as well at its global network of dealers and distributors, including Canada Post outlets.