9:17 AM ET
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.
From its pool of community-driven nominees, the league shortlisted 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 towards 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 all manner of activity from hockey to football to lacrosse. The group recruits youth that might not otherwise get to participate in those sports and delivers them to and from the programs they choose.
Francis co-founded Indigenous Girls Hockey Nova Scotia in 2020 and is its program lead. The program provides ice time and equipment in three locations around the Canadian province for female Mi’kmaq 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 BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) daughters, who loved hockey but didn’t see themselves represented within the girls’ game. Through the Ninas, Lang helped recruit more girls of color into hockey but wanted to impact the game even further.
That motivated Lang to co-found Minnesota Unbounded, a travel tournament team for BIPOC girls. The program’s volunteer coaches work with kids from more than 50 families and provides everything from practice ice to guest speakers to jerseys at a manageable cost.
Source: ESPN NHL