The NHL continued its award nomination roll-out on Monday, announcing the three finalists for the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.
The award, established in 2018, is named after the first player to break the NHL’s color barrier, Hall of Famer Willie O’Ree, and is given to “an individual who – through the sport of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture, or society”.
Black Girl Hockey Club founder Renee Hess, executive director of HEROS Kevin Hodgson and co-founder of Pittsburgh I.C.E. Howard Smith are all in contention for this prestigious honor.
Hess is responsible for founding one of the fastest-growing and influential organizations in hockey today. Since its establishment in 2018, Black Girl Hockey Club has made significant strides in opening doors for people, and specifically women, in the Black community to break into hockey and succeed in a sport that is not always welcoming to them. From awarding education and hockey scholarships to hosting mentorship and development programs, Black Girl Hockey Club is at the forefront of the fight against the racism that remains all too prevalent in the sport today.
The organization’s “Get Uncomfortable” campaign is a prime example of this, with the movement aiming to encourage hockey fans to engage in the uncomfortable conversations centered around the racism faced by BIPOC communities in hockey while “developing a comprehensive set of recommendations on how all entities involved in hockey, at all levels, can meaningfully contribute to the movement against discrimination and oppression of BIPOC communities in society”.
HEROS, the organization to which Hodgson serves as Executive Director, is doing incredible work of its own.
Founded in 2000, HEROS strives to empower at-risk youth through the game of hockey, while its affiliate SuperHEROS provides children with cognitive or developmental disabilities a safe and inclusive environment with an updated on-ice curriculum to fit their specific needs.
HEROS is a non-profit run by volunteers, offering free hockey clinics to those who need it. In total, there are 28 programs that fall under the HEROS banner operating in 12 different cities across Canada. And, as of today, Hodgson has helped provide valuable skills to the nearly 10,000 children who have participated in HEROS since its inception.
Rounding out the list of nominees is Smith, co-founder of the Hockey Is For Everyone program Pittsburgh I.C.E., which “offers children of all socioeconomic backgrounds the opportunity to learn and play hockey.”
Smith currently works for two other organizations that each do incredible work in his hometown of Pittsburgh. The first, Steel City Icebergs, offers hockey programs to both adults and children with developmental disabilities in order to help them learn in a safe and inclusive space. Pittsburgh Warriors, Smith’s other endeavor, operates as a non-profit organization that provides support to honorably discharged members of the United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard while uniting them around hockey. Having served as a member of the United States Navy for more than 20 years, this cause is clearly near and dear to Smith’s heart.
Regardless of who emerges victorious, each nominee is undoubtedly a winner in their own right.