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Penguins Create Willie O’Ree Academy for Black Youth Players



Pittsburgh Penguins, Willie O'Ree

The Pittsburgh Penguins did more than pay lip service to hockey inclusion and diversity on Thursday. The organization announced the creation of the Willie O’Ree Academy for Black youth players, in celebration of O’Ree who was the first Black NHL player.

The academy was created with help from Dick’s Sporting Goods and has a stated intent to create opportunities and training for Black youth hockey players in the Pittsburgh area.

February is Black History month in the United States and the NHL has made concerted efforts to highlight and advance diversity.

O’Ree broke hockey’s color barrier in 1958. The academy program will start in June. Players and families interested in participating in the Willie O’Ree Academy can click here.

Florida Panthers AGM Brett Peterson (known as Chubs to Johnstown Chiefs fans) recently broke the color barrier for NHL executives. Peterson is believed to be the first Black hockey executive. In the offseason, the Pittsburgh Penguins also hired recently retired player Trevor Daley as a hockey operations advisor.

From the Penguins press release:

The Pittsburgh Penguins today announced the creation of the “Willie O’Ree Academy,” designed to provide unique training, social and mentorship opportunities for Black youth hockey players in the Pittsburgh region. It is named in honor of Willie O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first Black player in 1958 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 2018.

Starting in June with a nine-week training program, the Willie O’Ree Academy will bring together Black youth players who are already skating in the Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League (PAHL) and Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League (PIHL). During the summer months, they will base out of the Penguins’ official practice facility at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex and participate in two training sessions a week – one on the ice and one off the ice. They will then meet monthly throughout the year for educational programming and mentoring opportunities. The entire program is free of charge.

DICK’S Sporting Goods is teaming up with the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation to provide funding and apparel.

“We have a number of diversity programs that we will be rolling out in the next few months, but this one is special because it honors Willie’s legacy while creating unique growth opportunities for Black youth already playing hockey,” said David Morehouse, president and CEO of the Penguins. “They’re skating for amateur and high school teams throughout the region, but they don’t really know each other. The academy gives them a chance to meet, get together, skate and train as a unit in the summer and, maybe most importantly, share experiences. We appreciate the fact that DICK’S Sporting Goods has stepped up again to help us in this important initiative.”

The academy starts on June 15 and will be open to boys and girls ages 10-18. During the nine-week summer training sessions, participants will receive instruction from former NHL players such as the Penguins’ Trevor Daley as well as the hockey and training staffs at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. Monthly educational programs will be held once the training concludes in mid-August.

“We recognize that Black youth players often face unique circumstances within the hockey community,” said Jim Britt, executive director of the Penguins Foundation. “The idea of the academy is to dedicate resources and programming to give these kids more and better opportunities throughout the game. Aside from on-ice skill development, they’ll also be able to develop a social network of peers among players and families.”

O’Ree is best known for becoming the NHL’s first Black player, skating for the Boston Bruins in a game against the Montreal Canadiens on January 18, 1958, but he was an outstanding professional who played 13 seasons for the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League. His legacy is all the more remarkable because he was blind in one eye. O’Ree, now 85 years old, was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a builder in 2018 for his decades-long efforts to introduce hockey to boys and girls of diverse backgrounds.

“I was so excited and thrilled that the Willie O’Ree Academy was being developed and ultimately now being launched,” O’Ree said. “The Academy will continue the legacy I have worked so hard to create and maintain in this space.”

The year-round educational programming for academy players will include cultural and identity discussions, as well as career exposure to Penguins executives, NHL front office executives and Penguins corporate partners. There also are plans for social events, including Penguins game viewing parties and access to a Penguins practice.

In creating the academy concept, the Penguins consulted with Daley, the team’s hockey operations advisor, a two-time Stanley Cup champion and a member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance; P.O Joseph, their 21-year-old defenseman; and Kim Davis, the NHL’s senior executive VP of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, among others.

“The NHL considers this Pittsburgh chapter of the Willie O’Ree Academy a pilot, and will coordinate with Penguins leadership on strategy and execution, with an eye toward scalability and replicability to other markets in future years,” Davis said

Players and families interested in participating in the Willie O’Ree Academy should please click here.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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