Jason McCrimmon wore Willie O’Ree’s No. 22 as a player growing up in Detroit.
Years later, McCrimmon was fortunate enough to work with and learn from O’Ree as part of O’Ree’s annual Skills Weekend in Boston. That made the honor of receiving the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award at the NHL Awards ceremony in Nashville this past June even more special for McCrimmon.
“I had a pretty good relationship with Mr. O’Ree already, but to see him on that stage and being able to stand next to him, while actually holding his award, is kind of just a full-circle situation. It was unreal,” McCrimmon said. “The magnitude of it and actually knowing him and knowing his energy and character is unmatched. It was just huge for us as a group and huge for myself.”
The Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award is given to an individual who, through hockey, has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society. The award honors O'Ree, the former NHL forward who became the first Black player to play in the NHL on Jan. 18, 1958, and has spent more than two decades as the NHL's diversity ambassador.
That the award focuses on community, not just hockey, is apt for McCrimmon. Yes, he teaches the game to kids, and he is the president of the USPHL Motor City Gamblers. But exposing underprivileged and underrepresented communities to hockey is far from the only thing McCrimmon does for his community.
“It’s an all-around kind of program,” McCrimmon said. “It’s not just focused on hockey. It’s community-based for us to have hockey as a platform for us to get a bigger reach for us to do a lot of different things. Hockey is helping create a better kid for the long term.”
Through the nonprofit Detroit Ice Dreams program, McCrimmon, the organization’s president, and Cynthia Wardlaw, its program manager, have created a comprehensive approach to community.
Yes, young children of color learn to play hockey. However, they also spend time doing homework together through mentorship programs before they ever take the ice. They raise money and volunteer with school supply drives, creating care packages for the unhoused. Detroit Ice Dreams sponsors haircuts in September for students going back to school, throws barbeques on Father’s Day and makes sure families have what they need to celebrate holidays throughout the year.
“Our community outreach is huge,” McCrimmon said. “I feel like what we do for our community is bigger than sports. You’re in a situation where you are really putting a smile on people’s faces. We try to make sure we have a positive impact in the community so we can kind of build the right setting for people.”
McCrimmon has created an organization with Detroit Ice Dreams that teaches kids important values like teamwork and perseverance on the ice, while showing them how to translate those lessons into helping others in the community. It’s a lesson McCrimmon says he got from his mother, Barbara Nelson.
From an early age, he understood the power of giving back and being invested in your neighborhood and your community and having them be invested in you. It gave McCrimmon a strong foundation as he was growing up. Those memories are so integral to the work that he continues to do in Detroit today.
“My mom always taught us the right way to give back,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be financial; it could be time or just good energy. I was taught that at a very young age and that carried over. She did a very good job of raising us and putting us in the mental mindset of being able to give back and try to do right.”
After a college and professional career, it was natural for McCrimmon to return home to Detroit. He calls Jack Adams Memorial Arena, where Detroit Ice Dreams is located, the household he came out of. He was excited to partner with Wardlaw to see if they could build a situation similar to the onehe experienced growing up that led him to love the game of hockey.
While children learn to skate and play hockey — and the sport may serve to open doors for them in the future — McCrimmon is much less focused on producing stars than he is on making sure the kids in the program grow as people. He hopes they make lasting friendships, and that the competition shapes their character. He wants them to face adversity, while knowing they have support, and to help them become a part of a wider hockey network of people that might not look like them but have the shared love of hockey.
Winning this award is an honor, but it’s also an opportunity to get Detroit Ice Dreams out to a wider audience — not just sponsors or supporters, but also more kids in the city who might not have had any exposure to hockey. It is a great spotlight not just on McCrimmon, but on all the people that make the nonprofit successful and shines a spotlight on the program.
McCrimmon said the goal is to get as many kids as possible involved and build the program’s numbers. Detroit Ice Dreams is particularly focused on getting more girls and young women involved to make sure they can also take advantage of the opportunities the organization. Hopefully, more of those skaters end up playing in high school and college in the coming years.
McCrimmon is taking the lessons of the previous generation — learned from his mother and O’Ree — and ensuring that they live on for years to come.
“I embrace that aspect of being one of the people that can carry on the tradition,” he said. “Making the reach bigger with the same love and respect and dedication to grow it the right way. I’m fortunate and blessed to be a part of that group, coming up in Mr. O’Ree’s footsteps.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.