The team’s groundbreaking initiative promotes opportunities for young players of color
PITTSBURGH – Willie O’Ree paved the way for young players of color in hockey, leaving behind a legacy of increased opportunities on the ice. WQED is proud to premiere, Equity on Ice: The Willie O’Ree Academy on Thursday October 5 at 8pm on WQED-TV, with an encore presentation on Monday October 9 at 7:30pm. The thirty-minute documentary will also stream at www.wqed.org/watch. Produced by Beth Dolinar and Dave Forstate, the program, with narration by Brian Cook, focuses on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ mentorship initiative for young ice hockey players of color.
The Academy is named for Willie O’Ree, the man known as the “Jackie Robinson of Professional Hockey.” O’Ree, a Canada native, made his National Hockey League debut with the Boston Bruins in 1958, becoming the NHL’s first Black player.
O’Ree remained a lifelong advocate for players of color and economically disadvantaged youth; he earned a place in the National Hockey Hall of fame.
Players and audiences of color remain significantly under-represented in the NHL and in all phases of hockey. However, O’Ree’s legacy is now “center ice” in Western Pennsylvania, where the Pittsburgh Penguins have launched the Willie O’Ree Academy. Created by the Pens in partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods in 2021, the Academy provides unique training as well as social and mentorship opportunities for Black, African American and youth of color who play hockey in the Pittsburgh region.
In contrast to other urban hockey programs, the Willie O’Ree Academy’s goal is not focused on getting kids of color on skates for the first time. The Academy participants are already experienced skaters with knowledge and appreciation for the sport. However, these “seasoned” players are now challenged by new obstacles, often being in the minority among their peers, coaches and in the stands.
WQED explores the Willie O’Ree Academy not only through the legacy of its legendary namesake, but through the eyes and activities of the young participants.
“Being around people who look like you really just lets you embrace yourself and embrace who you are as a person,” said 15-year-old Gavin Durden, a player and member of the Academy who is featured in the documentary.
“We truly believe that hockey is for everyone, and it should be available for everyone,” said Jaden Lindo, a former Penguins draft pick, now manager of Community Hockey Programs at the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation. “And we just want to make that a reality.”
“Professional hockey has been lacking in diversity from its beginning,” said co-producer Beth Dolinar. “In producing this, we were impressed to meet so many young Black players–both girls and boys—who have the talent and the passion to make it in this sport, and who are being helped along by the Academy.”
With honest, compelling interviews, the documentary explores a long overdue new direction in one of America’s most popular sports – and introduces the people in Pittsburgh who are working for positive change.
Equity on Ice: The Willie O’Ree Academy is made possible with the generous support of UPMC.
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