The NHL announced on Monday three finalists for this year's Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award, which recognizes individuals working to make a positive impact on their community, culture and society through hockey.
The finalists include Noel Acton, co-founder of The Tender Bridge and Banners Hockey, Ryan Francis, co-founder of Indigenous Girls Hockey Nova Scotia, and Meredith Lang, co-founder of Hockey Ninas and MN Unbounded.
Public voting on the award runs from April 4-17 at NHL.com/OReeAward. The winner will receive a $25,000 prize to put toward his or her community work; the other finalists will be awarded $5,000.
Acton founded The Tender Bridge (TTB) in 2003 for kids in and around East Baltimore. They know him as "Mr. Noel," and Acton devotes his time to helping at-risk kids recognize the many positive directions their lives can take. The TTB is a year-round, sports-based program, encompassing activities from hockey to football to lacrosse. The group recruits youths who might not otherwise get to participate in those sports and delivers them to and from practices and games for the programs they choose.
Francis co-founded Indigenous Girls Hockey Nova Scotia in 2020. The program provides ice time and equipment in three locations around Nova Scotia for Mi'kmaq girls ages 6-14.
A member of Acadia First Nation, Francis began the initiative to increase the participation of young First Nations girls in hockey. As a result, Francis has seen those kids take confidence earned from participating on the ice and step more powerfully into other areas of their lives.
Lang was inspired to help found The Hockey Ninas by her own daughters, who loved hockey, but as girls of color, didn't see themselves represented within the game. Through the Ninas, Lang helped recruit more girls who are Black, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC) into hockey.
Looking to impact the game even further, Lang co-founded Minnesota Unbounded, a travel tournament team for BIPOC girls. The program's volunteer coaches work with kids from more than 50 families and provide everything from practice ice to guest speakers to jerseys at a manageable cost.