The National Hockey League (NHL®) today announced Renee Hess (founder of the Black Girl Hockey Club), Kevin Hodgson (executive director of HEROS), and Howard Smith (co-founder of Pittsburgh I.C.E.) have been named the three finalists for the 2020-21 Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award presented by MassMutual, which is given to an individual who – through the sport of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society.
The three finalists, and ultimate winner, will be determined by fan vote and weighted votes from Willie O’Ree, the NHL and MassMutual. Fans are encouraged to start voting today until June 11 at NHL.com/OReeAward. The winner will receive a $25,000 USD prize and the two finalists will each receive a $5,000 USD prize, each of which will be donated to a charity of their respective choice.
Following are the finalists for the 2020-21 Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award presented by MassMutual, in alphabetical order:
Renee Hess founded the Black Girl Hockey Club, a nonprofit organization, in 2018 to “inspire and sustain passion” for hockey within the Black community, and specifically for women in the Black community. Hess’s organization began as a safe space for hockey fans and it has since grown into an organization that hosts events across the U.S., provides leadership and mentorship development programs, and offers education and hockey scholarships. Click here to visit the Black Girl Hockey Club website.
Kevin Hodgson is the executive director of HEROS (Hockey Education Reaching Out Society) which empowers at-risk youth, and SuperHEROS, which provides boys and girls living with physical and cognitive challenges with a safe and inclusive environment as well as an adapted on-ice curriculum. Hodgson oversees the volunteer-driven nonprofit that operates 28 programs in 12 cities across Canada serving participants from diverse backgrounds. One in three participants are girls, and almost half of the participants are new Canadians. On the ice, HEROS provides free hockey programming in a safe, stable environment. Off the ice, they provide opportunities for personal development as well as education and scholarship assistance to help young people succeed. Since 2000, nearly 10,000 boys and girls have participated in the program. Click here to visit the HEROS website.
Howard Smith was the co-founder, alongside Cliff Benson, of Pittsburgh I.C.E. (Inclusion Creates Equity), a Hockey Is For Everyone program that is committed to offering children of all socio-economic backgrounds the opportunity to learn and play hockey. Currently Howard spends countless hours working with Steel City Icebergs, an adaptive ice hockey program for both children and adults with developmental disabilities such as Autism and Down Syndrome, and Pittsburgh Warriors, a nonprofit organization of honorably discharged members with a service-connected disability united around hockey, who served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard. Prior to his involvement in grassroots hockey, Smith served in the U.S. Navy for more than 20 years. His love for hockey began as a youth hockey coach and for more than two decades he has coached boys’ and girls’ hockey teams, wounded veterans’ hockey teams, and special needs hockey teams. Howard is a player and coach and continues to help others use hockey as therapy.
The Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award presented by MassMutual honors former NHL forward Willie O’Ree, who on Jan. 18, 1958, became the first black player to compete in the League. O’Ree, who lost sight in his right eye at a young age, went on to play professional hockey for 21 years. For more than two decades he has served as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, traveling across North America to schools and hockey programs to share his story and experiences as well as to promote messages of inclusion, dedication, and confidence. O’Ree has used hockey as a platform to build character and teach life skills and has used his influence to foster positive values through the sport. In 2018, O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Last season, Dampy Brar (Apna Hockey) was the recipient of the Award. Brar, alongside Lali Toor, co-founded Apna Hockey, an initiative that provides a network and support for South Asian hockey players. For more about the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award presented by MassMutual, including past winners, click here.