“It’s one of the real professional joys of my life and something that I will never forget.” – Kevin Hodgson
When HEROS Executive Director Kevin Hodgson speaks about Willie O’Ree, there is always a great amount of respect and admiration in his voice. It’s a respect that not only stems from Mr. O’Ree’s overall impact within the sport of hockey and the NHL, but also as a result of a near two decades-long connection between Kevin, Mr. O’Ree and HEROS. This connection made the moment Mr. O’Ree personally presented Kevin with the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award that much more special.
“Any chance I get to spend time with him is a privilege because you get inspired and learn so much about his story and what he fought through to get to where he got,” Kevin said.
Mr. O’Ree became the first Black NHL player to ever play in the league when he made his debut on January 18, 1958 with the Boston Bruins. Since 1998, Mr. O’Ree has been the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and ambassador for NHL Diversity and has won numerous awards.
Kevin met Mr. O’Ree 15 years ago at the Willie O’Ree Skills Weekend, when Kevin first became involved with HEROS as a Calgary HEROS volunteer. The NHL has hosted the Willie O’Ree Skills Weekend annually since 2000. Every year, a few HEROS participants in different cities are selected to attend the event, and Kevin has attended every year with the exceptions of 2020 and 2021, which were cancelled due to the pandemic. The 2022 Willie O’Ree Skills Weekend was scheduled to take place the same time as Mr. O’Ree’s Boston Bruins jersey retirement ceremony on Jan. 18, but has been rescheduled for April 2022.
Mr. O’Ree did not attend his jersey retirement ceremony in-person, though he attended virtually from his San Diego home along with Kevin and HEROS founder and president Norm Flynn. It was on that trip to San Diego thatMr. O’Ree presented the award to Kevin.
“There were a few of us that have known Willie for a long time and run programs making sure that children have access to hockey. I was lucky enough to be part of a small group of Hockey Is For Everyone programs that spent that time with him in San Diego,” Kevin said.
Kevin was nominated for the award by SuperHeros player Naiya, last year. While the award was announced on June 16th on at Hockey Night in Canada, the trophy was first presented to Kevin by Naiya in October 2021 during a SuperHeros on-ice session.
The Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award is given to a person who is making a positive impact in their community, culture or society through hockey, according to the NHL.
“Any time that I see my name next to Willie O’Ree’s for anything, I consider it a real honour and a privilege. Everything about winning the Willie O’Ree Community HERO Award has been incredibly surreal and humbling. To have my picture taken with Willie and the trophy was an incredibly special moment.”