2023 Fredericton Encaenia - Ceremony B

William (Willie) O'Ree

Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.)



William (Willie) O’Ree will receive an honorary doctorate of letters in absentia on Wednesday, May 17. A member of both the Order of New Brunswick and the Order of Canada, O’Ree made history as the first Black player to compete in the National Hockey League (NHL). His journey from Fredericton, N.B. to the highest level of hockey exemplified incredible resilience during an era of significant obstacles for Black players and other players of color.

Two years prior to his NHL debut in 1958, O’Ree was declared legally blind in one eye when he was accidentally struck by an errant puck. However, he kept this condition a secret and persevered throughout a professional hockey career that spanned 22 years. In 1998, O’Ree became the NHL’s first-ever Diversity Ambassador and helped launch a network of “Hockey is for Everyone” grassroots youth programs that have positively impacted more than 130,000 diverse children across North America. Now 87 years old, O’Ree continues to serve as a role model who leverages the sport of hockey to teach inclusion, teamwork, and other important life lessons.

O’Ree’s impact has been celebrated in numerous books, documentaries, and recognitions – including being inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984, receiving the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the United States in 2003, and receiving the Sports Museum’s Hockey Legacy Award in Boston, MA in 2011. In 2018, O’Ree was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in the “Builder” category, and the NHL instituted the annual Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award to honour those who follow O’Ree’s example by making a positive impact on their community, culture, or society through hockey. He would soon be inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2020-21 and have his number retired by the Boston Bruins in 2022.

Last year, U.S. President Joe Biden signed the Willie O'Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act to award O'Ree with a Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of his contributions and commitment to hockey, inclusion and recreational opportunity. He is the first player in NHL history to receive this honour.

In the City of Fredericton, January 18 has been designated as Annual Willie O’Ree Day. O’Ree has previously been inducted into the Fredericton Sports Wall of Fame.

Citations may be reproduced for research purposes only. Publication in whole or in part requires written permission from the author.