Willie O'Ree is the focus of "Willie," a new documentary coming to ESPn.

Another sports documentary is coming to ESPN, and this one is on the NHL’s first black player, Willie O’Ree. O’Ree made his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins in 1958, and managed to do so despite being blind in one eye (thanks to being hit by a puck two years earlier; he hid that injury). Willie, a new documentary on O’Ree directed by Laurence Mathieu-Leger, has already won several awards on the festival circuit (a top-5 audience favorite at the Hot Docs Film Festival, Best Sports Documentary at the Downtown LA Film Festival, and Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Middleburg Film Festival), and now it’s coming to ESPN. Here’s more on that from a NHL release:

 Bryant McBride and Laurence Mathieu-Leger, producers of the critically-acclaimed documentary “Willie,” today announced a partnership with ESPN to air the film this spring in celebration of Black History Month. The film will be available through the month of February on ESPN.com and the ESPN App and will have four airings on ESPN2, with a first TV broadcast on February 17th, 7:00pm ET. The following airings will take place on February 18th, 20th, and 24th.

…“Given the impact Willie has made – and continues to make – on the game, we’re excited to bring his story to the forefront on our platforms,” said Brian Lockhart, ESPN Executive Producer for Original Content. “His journey is a great example of the meaningful and impactful stories we appreciate and love to tell.”

“We are thrilled to be partnering with ESPN to share Willie’s story far and wide,” said Bryant McBride, “Willie” producer. “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.”

“Willie O’Ree is a hockey pioneer who paved the way for the numerous players of diverse backgrounds who came to play the sport in the many years after his NHL debut,” said Kim Davis, NHL Executive Vice President, Social Impact, Growth Initiatives & Legislative Affairs. “As we embark on Black History Month, we are thrilled to see that “Willie” will air across ESPN platforms to further highlight Willie’s vital efforts in hockey.”

O’Ree was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada in 1935, the youngest of 13 children. He originally aimed towards playing professional baseball, but experienced segregation during a tryout there in the U.S. and turned his focus to hockey. He made his NHL debut with the Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, and went on to play parts of two seasons in the NHL and to play more than 20 seasons of professional hockey. He won two scoring titles in the old Western Hockey League in 1964–65 and 1968-69. And his NHL career is particularly notable for his trailblazer status; while the NHL wouldn’t have another black player until Mike Marson was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974, many black players have since followed in their footsteps. O’Ree was named a NHL diversity ambassador in 1994, and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018. Here’s more on him from the film’s website, williedoc.com:

In the midst of America’s tumultuous fight to end Jim Crow and the birth of the civil rights movement, Willie – the descendant of escaped slaves – became the first black player to skate in a National Hockey League game.   

He was blind in one eye – an extraordinary secret that only his sister knew.  He played 45 games in the NHL and then 22 years of minor league hockey. Later, Willie sold cars, managed fast food restaurants, and worked security at a hotel.  When he was asked to become the NHL’s diversity ambassador in 1994, he was 60 years old.  He took the job, and he has never stopped. 

…”Willie” provides historical context and depth to O’Ree’s incredible journey.  The film is a testament to the resilience and determination of a man empowered by his family’s legacy, and the people he has inspired along the way.

​His work is not done.

It’s interesting to see ESPN pick up a documentary like this, as their more usual approach has been to commission documentaries for the 30 for 30 series. But this is an existing documentary that’s already gained a fair bit of buzz and has some things going for it; the release says the team involved is comprised completely of minority and women filmmakers, and O’Ree’s story is a great one to feature during Black History Month. There are notable figures backing it, too, with the release listing that the team involved is “supported by Executive Producers Ted Leonsis, Sheila Johnson, and Earl Stafford, as well as JP Morgan Chase” and that they’re “collaborating closely” with the NHL. And ESPN’s platforms are a logical place for this to land; they have tremendous reach, and the combined linear and streaming approach makes sense as a way to get this in front of as many people as possible (ESPN has premiered several 30 for 30s on their streaming platforms before linear airings as well). Here’s a trailer for the documentary:

Willie is available on the ESPN app and ESPN.com now, and will premiere on ESPN2 on February 17th at 7 p.m. Eastern.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.