The NHL announces its 2023 Willie O’Ree Community Hero award finalists every year, corresponding to individuals who have positively impacted their local community, culture, or society through hockey. This year the finalists include six dedicated people from the United States and Canada: Jason McCrimmon (Detroit, MI), Karen Ota-O’Brien (Coconut Creek, FL), Marty Richardson (Littleton, CO) from the US, and Derek Klein (Shellbrook, Saskatchewan), Dean Smith (Halifax, NS) and Saroya Tinker (Toronto, ON) from Canada. All will receive significant donations towards the charity of their choice and the finalists from each country will be selected through votes from Willie O’Ree, the NHL, and representatives from Hyundai Canada, followed by a public fan vote on NHL.com.
Jason McCrimmon is a driving force behind Detroit Ice Dreams Youth Hockey Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to introducing more underrepresented communities to the sport of hockey. To help empower the future generation of hockey players, McCrimmon has created stellar on-ice programming, community giveaways and school supply distributions. As the president and founder of the non-profit, as well as the head coach and general manager of the USPHL’s Motor City Gamblers Jr. A team, he has helped numerous players to move on to collegiate level and pursue hockey-related career paths.
Karen Ota-O’Brien is the stalwart advocate of the women’s hockey game. Having invested nearly three decades of her life to increase inclusivity and create a safe and welcoming space for women of all ages and skill levels, Ota-O’Brien is the founder of projects such as the South Florida Women’s Hockey Program, the Lucky Pucks Hockey Club, and the Florida Women’s Hockey League. The success of her efforts is undeniable, as even a project such as Girls Night Out League has been met with tremendous enthusiasm from its participants.
Marty Richardson from Colorado built the Dawg Nation Hockey Foundation as a platform for giving back to North American families with hardships. He has raised funds through hockey tournaments, golf games and crowdsourcing. Since 2002, Richardson has donated $900,000 to assist such families and overall, more than $4 million has been allocated for aid.
Derek Klein is the CEO of Big River First Nation and is an instrumental figure in helping promote and grow hockey in the area. Working to reduce any access and financial barriers to the sport, Klein backed the $42 million Jim Neilson Sports Complex — including an ice arena, practice fields and other outlets — which has since then provided opportunities to 800+ local youth.
Dean Smith, a lawyer from Nova Scotia, has dedicated himself to making hockey a safe and inclusive environment. As the Chair of Hockey Nova Scotia’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, as well as the secretary to the Black Ice Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame Society, Smith continues to promote diversity and opportunity for Black Nova Scotians. Graduates of Smith’s youth programs have gone on to play at an elite level in the province.
Saroya Tinker is the executive director of Black Girl Hockey Club Canada and a defenseman for the 2023 Isobel Cup-winning Toronto Six. Through various initiatives, such as Saroya Strong, Tinker mentors and advocates for Black women in hockey in order to make the game more inclusive for all involved.
The Willie O’Ree Community Hero award serves as a prime example of the NHL’s commitment to creating positive change and impact by recognizing true heroes in the hockey community. Along with the important work that each of these finalists has made and continue to make, the NHL and its charitable partners Hyundai Canada and the National Hockey League Foundation are looking forward to honouring the winners of the 2023 award.