Willie O’Ree Academy launched by Penguins to help develop Black players

The Pittsburgh Penguins have launched the Willie O’Ree Academy, a free initiative specifically designed to help develop experienced Black youth hockey players in the region by providing unique training and support opportunities.

Penguins officials sought to honor O’Ree, the first Black player in the NHL, by naming the academy after him, and they hope that it will become a model for the League to adopt.

“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 academy, which begins June 15, is open to boys and girls ages 10 to 18. It starts with a nine-week training program for Black players who are already skating in the Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League and Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League.

The on- and off-ice training sessions will be held at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, the Penguins practice facility. Participants will receive instruction from former NHL players such as Trevor Daley, who is the Penguins hockey operations adviser, and members of the Lemieux Sports Complex’s hockey and training staff. 

The academy’s year-round educational component will include cultural and identity discussions and provide career exposure to Penguins and NHL front office executives and Penguins corporate partners.

Funding for the academy comes through a partnership between the Penguins and Dick’s Sporting Goods, which is headquartered near Pittsburgh.

“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,” Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse said. “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.”

The academy was developed in consultation with Daley, who won the Stanley Cup twice with Pittsburgh and played 1,058 NHL games with the Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars; Penguins rookie defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph; Kim Davis, NHL senior executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs; and others.

The academy recognizes the lonely path that young Black players travel in hockey, often the only person of color on their team and sometimes subjected to racial abuse from opposing players, parents and even teammates.

Jim Britt, executive director of the Penguins Foundation, said the hope is that the O’Ree academy will provide participants with a safe space that allows them to bond and develop into elite players capable of playing in college, major junior, or even the NHL someday.

“The challenge that we’re seeing is that for some Black hockey players, they’re leaving the game because the game is not welcoming,” Britt said. “Whether it happens as teenagers or adults, the game is not showing the same love that they’re showing. We’re working to build a community and support network that can help this group to get through those challenges that they’ll face during a season … those unique circumstances compared to their white teammates, their white coaches.”

Britt said the Penguins felt strongly about naming the academy after O’Ree to honor his legacy.

O’Ree made history when he debuted with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, in a game at the Montreal Canadiens. Despite being blind in one eye, he played 45 NHL games over two seasons (1957-58, 1960-61), all with Boston, and continued to play in the minor leagues until 1979.

O’Ree, who as the NHL’s diversity ambassador has helped cultivate a new generation of players and fans, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.

“Our hope is that we can be the pilot program for the Willie O’Ree Academy,” Britt said. “We’ll work out the kinks here in Pittsburgh over this next year and we can hand a plan to the NHL to roll out to every other market as they see as possible and fit. We hope putting Willie’s name [on it] would honor his legacy and also make this reach that much farther.”