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Willie O’Ree: Lessons in Social Justice & Racism

By Aaron Wilbur, The Coaches Site, 02/01/21, 3:15PM EST


Watch the film, explore clips and more

Hockey is a global game that is rich in history. With tradition, change can sometimes become a challenge. The benefits of team sport and the life lessons that hockey offers can be used as an opportunity for education. By working together with our teams, associations and communities, it’s up to all of us to bring on the positive changes to our sport.

Willie O’Ree was the first black player in the NHL. He paved the way for so many, creating critical change throughout the sport. His story has impacted the future of hockey, but we hope that now it can facilitate an important conversation about race and social justice in classrooms across North America.

Produced by Bryant McBride, the Willie documentary tells the story of Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL. O’Ree had a tremendous impact on the sport of hockey and the communities he served. The NHL and Classroom Champions have come together to create a digital experience to facilitate discussion and learning around social justice and race through the lens of O’Ree’s experiences shown in the documentary.


Willie O’Ree was a change-agent in the hockey world, whether he knew it or not. Watch the story of his career and how his journey paved the way for so many players of color across the sport.

Code: WILLI32021

“My own experience in Sault Ste. Marie, I was welcomed with open arms by my coaches and my teammates because I contributed. I did my best every shift. Had some success early on. I was so embraced by the community,” said McBride. “Did I feel racism? Absolutely I felt it. Not as overt as some instances but you feel things and people say things. It sticks with you. Never having a teammate of colour always stuck with me and I pledged that if I ever had the chance to do something about it I would, so I did.”

McBride was the first African American class president at the famed United States Military Academy at West Point. He earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University before becoming the highest-ranking African American executive in the history of the National Hockey League as the Vice-President of Business Development. McBride led the creation of the Hockey is for Everyone campaign that still exists to this day.

For as much progress has been made since the launch of Hockey is for Everyone in 1995, McBride stresses there is still work to be done.

Access Educator’s Guides & Resources

Download guides for educators, coaches, families, or community groups to help navigate a discussion around racism and social justice through Willie. Access the guides, corresponding clips and other educational resources for kids grades 5-8 and 9-12.

“The most important sport in the world for kids of colour to play is hockey. It’s a great equalizer. Nobody’s born with skates on. I’m a dad, if I only have one thing I can give my children it’s resilience, the ability to get back up,” said McBride. “You step on the ice, nobody knows how to skate. The first thing you do is fall on your butt. The first lesson you learn is to get back up. That’s a muscle that extends to STEM, problems that you’re going to face, especially as a person of colour, you’re going to have to overcome challenges. Getting used to overcoming those challenges and building that muscle is critical.”

McBride describes O’Ree as most humble, gracious, earnest man he’s ever met

“There’s nobody like him. He’s everything that’s good about this sport.”

O’Ree is set to have his number 22 jersey retired by the Boston Bruins later this month. Players will be wearing O’Ree helmet decals throughout February, which is also Black History Month. He was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a Builder in 2018 and has also received the Order of Canada.

“We wanted to use the film as a teaching tool to spur social justice conversations. That, we feel, is the entry point to making a difference is to start those uncomfortable, hard conversations… We want as many people to take advantage of this as possible.”

Lessons from Willie offers the digital resources to facilitate a meaningful lesson around social justice and racism through Willie’s experience. Through the film and educator’s guide, there are tools for parents, teachers, clubs and coaches. Educators who sign up can get a Zoom panel discussion with NHL and Women’s players, Olympians and other leaders for their classroom.

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Aaron is the Founder and CEO of The Coaches Site, the #1 online resource for hockey coaches, and also the host of the Glass & Out podcast. He is married with two boys, believes Major League is the best sports movie of all-time, is scared of heights and is mildly obsessed with the Alabama Crimson Tide football program.

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