The National Hockey League (NHL) has announced Noel Acton (Baltimore, Md.), Meredith Lang (Minneapolis, Minn.) and Ryan Francis (Cole Harbour, N.S.) as finalists for the fifth annual Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award. Each year, the award is given to an individual who — through the sport of hockey — has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society.
Fans are encouraged to vote until April 17 at NHL.com/OReeAward. The winner will receive a $25,000 prize and the other two finalists will each receive a $5,000 prize, each of which will be donated to a charity of their respective choice.
Noel Acton is the founder of the Tender Bridge Foundation, a nonprofit that has supported more than 500 boys and girls in East Baltimore for 20 years. Focused on getting kids off the street and into sports programs, Noel and his team provide all levels of assistance including equipment, transportation, and meals, anything to help the kids succeed. The Foundation also runs the Baltimore Banners and Junior Banners hockey team, a safe space for at-risk youth to not only increase their chances of survival, but to become a positive influence in their community.
Meredith Lang is being recognized for her work introducing, and encouraging, young girls of color to learn and play hockey. The co-founder of two organizations, Hockey Niñas and Minnesota Unbounded, Lang’s efforts extend beyond Minneapolis. Through the Hockey Niñas, her ability to gather information and share resources makes it easier for anyone who wants to try hockey. Her work has supported families from Mexico to California to New York. Through her work with Minnesota Unbounded, a league comprised entirely of girls and women of color from the players on the ice to the coaches behind the bench, Lang has helped grow the number of competitive girls’ hockey teams from 31 girls in U10 and U12 teams, to more than 50 families from 20 different hockey organizations on U10, U12, U14 teams, as well as pilot programs for U6 and U8 teams.
Ryan Francis helped launch the ‘Indigenous Girls Hockey Program Nova Scotia’ which encourages young Mi’kmaq girls to play hockey. His efforts are focused on breaking down the barriers that commonly keep girls from playing the game by making equipment and resources more easily accessible. A member of Acadia First Nation, Francis believes in the importance of creating a safe community and support network for young girls in Nova Scotia. In its first two years, the program has had 190 unique participants from three different Mi’kmaq communities.
The Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award 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.