In 1958, Willie Eldon O’Ree made his National Hockey League debut with the Boston Bruins, becoming the first black player in league history. Now, more than 60 years later, O’Ree’s groundbreaking story is heading to the big screen, in a feature-length documentary, titled, “Willie.”
Executive produced by Bryant McBride, the film is set to highlight O’Ree’s Hockey accomplishments, between his minor-league career, his vision impairment and his historic NHL debut and career, as well as his personal life and family history.
Almost 200 years after his great-grandfather escaped slavery, O’Ree “shattered the NHL’s color barrier with the Boston Bruins, amid the birth of the Civil Rights movement and the struggle to end Jim Crow,” Deadline reports, which came two years after O’Ree went blind in one eye, and kept the secret for more than two decades.
About 16 years after his playing career, O’Ree began working behind the scenes as the league’s diversity ambassador, and now, at age 83, he’s still working to help those who deal with America’s ugly truth, in sports.
“Willie O’Ree’s place in hockey history and the impact he’s had on growing the game is truly inspirational,” NHL Chief Content Office and EVP Steve Mayer said of the living legend. “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.”
On Monday, O’Ree, who is often referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey” for his pioneering efforts in the sport, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and according to Deadline, the film ends with footage of the ceremony.
“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.”
The film is set to be released in 2019.