The journey of Willie O’Ree—the first Black man to play in the National Hockey League—is coming to the small screen. According to Deadline, ESPN has acquired the rights to a documentary that delves into how the Canadian broke racial barriers in the realm of sports.
The film, dubbed Willie, captures how the racial climate in America during the Jim Crow era affected his experience on the ice. O’Ree—who made his debut with the NHL’s Boston Bruins during the 1957-58 season—endured several racist incidents. While traveling to different venues to compete, he was taunted with racial slurs by players and fans. While playing against the Chicago Blackhawks he was physically attacked by an opponent who knocked out O’Ree’s teeth and broke his nose with a hockey stick. “I was faced with racism, bigotry, prejudice and ignorance and discrimination,” he said in a statement, according to CBS. “Every time I went to the ice I was faced with racial slurs because of my color and my brother taught me names will never hurt you unless you let them.”
Despite what he experienced on and off the ice, O’Ree persevered. He retired in 1979, but his hockey career has forever changed the landscape of the sport. O’Ree inspired several generations of hockey players that came after him including Mike Greer and Jarome Iginla. According to The Hill, the Hockey Hall of Famer became the NHL’s first diversity ambassador 24 years ago and he has helped serve over 120,000 children through the nonprofit Hockey is for Everyone.
“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,” said Bryant McBride, who served as the film’s producer.
The film is slated to make its television debut on ESPN2 on February 17.