What do you get when you put a Canadian filmmaker living in Harlem together with a sports business entrepreneur who is also a trailblazing entrepreneur? You get Willie, a new documentary about the life and career of Willie O’Ree, the Hockey Hall of Famer who was the first black player in the NHL.
The film, which will debut as a Special Presentation at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto April 29, is a first time collaboration of veteran filmmaker and journalist Laurence Mathieu-Leger and sports industry veteran and entrepreneur Bryant McBride, who also pioneered the diversity and inclusion efforts while he worked at the National Hockey League. The project has support from a host of luminaries like Washington Capitals and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis as well as J.P. Morgan Chase and the NHL, and tells not just O’Ree’s story of breaking the color barrier, but of the obstacles he had to overcome with racism, being blind in one eye, that led to an amazing life of leadership, grace and charm.
With Jackie Robinson Day just behind us, we spent some time with Mathieu-Leger, an accomplished athlete, award-winning filmmaker, editor and producer, wife and mother, to take us through the process of how this came about and what anyone can take away from Willie. You can watch the trailer and learn more about the film, which is scheduled for wider release later this year, by visiting williedoc.com.
NYSD: A Canadian filmmaker living in N.Y. decides to do a story about a pioneering Black hockey player. How did it come about?
Laurence Mathieu-Leger: The idea for the film stemmed from a conversation I had in February 2018 with my Harlem neighbor and longtime friend, Bryant McBride. I was coming home from my senior basketball league and ran into Bryant, who splits his time between NYC and Boston. We stared to chat about hockey (Bryant had been the first black executive at the National Hockey League back in the 90’s)—and he told me about a Fredericton based grass roots effort to get Willie O’Ree—the first black player in the NHL—to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He told me Willie was 82 years old and still working for the NHL, traveling North America and inspiring young people and that 2018 marked the 60th anniversary of him breaking the color barrier.
My first thoughts were why didn’t I know about Willie O’Ree? And how come he wasn’t in the Hall of Fame already? I told Bryant that we needed to make a film about this right away. Willie was (and still is) a living hero, and something “active” was happening (potential induction into the Hall of Fame) which could serve as a simple arc to tell a bigger, important story. We both felt that his story could help inspire and heal, at a time of heightened racial and political tension in America. We started production a few days later (literally).
NYSD: As a filmmaker living in New York, what were some of the biggest challenges and opportunities that this project presented, as opposed to others you have worked on?
LML: First and foremost, access was key. Bryant had hired Willie O’Ree back at the NHL in the 90’s, and had stayed close friends with him. He also had maintained close relationships with former colleagues at the NHL (including Gary Bettman). Bryant’s connections to the hockey world made this film possible, mainly because trust was already established. This was definitely an incredible opportunity. I had done several projects in the past where access had been extremely complicated and difficult to obtain.
Secondly, being a woman making a “sports film” could have been a major challenge – luckily it wasn’t. I truly believe this is because Bryant immediately established that I was his equal and that we were working together on this project as one. He would present our team as such to anyone interested in collaborating or supporting the project, reinforcing that I had creative control. This was an empowering experience for both of us. We committed to hiring a team that looked like us to tell Willie’s story: diverse.
NYSD: Ice Hockey in Harlem has a role in the film; as someone who lives in the area what is the impact that program can and is having on young people of color?
LML: Hockey is not an accessible sport in New York City – mainly because they are very few ice rinks, and those who run programs are unaffordable for most kids. As a parent myself, it’s hard to get my older son on the ice. I think Ice Hockey in Harlem plays a key role in the neighborhood. It not only helps to break the general belief that hockey is a “white man’s game,” but most importantly it gives an opportunity to kids in the area to be exposed to another sport and let them know that this is a community they too can be part of.
NYSD: Willie’s story goes well beyond just hockey. What are the messages you hope people take away from the film?
LML: The film uses hockey as a thread – but at its core, it’s a story about hardship, perseverance, friendship, generational change, and—ultimately—triumph. We hope audiences of all ages and ethnic backgrounds can feel connected in some way. We want to highlight that there is still a lot of work to be done—in hockey and beyond—and that perhaps real change starts with kindness.