Halifax’s Dean Smith named finalist for Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award

The National Hockey League announced this week Dean Smith of Halifax has been named a Canadian finalist for the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.

The award is given to an individual who has made an impact on his or her community, culture or society through hockey.

“Being named a finalist is incredibly special for me,” said Smith, a Halifax lawyer who coached two minor hockey teams this winter.

“All the volunteer work Willie O’Ree did into his 60s and 70s is inspirational and I look forward to continuing in that legacy.”

Smith, who is Black, grew up in the Whitney Pier area of Sydney. He says he found out early in life that Black people often faced discrimination.

He says one of the comments he heard when he was young was that “Black kids aren’t supposed to be playing hockey.”

Those words made him quit the game but he used it as his motivation to try to make things better for Black youth who want to play the sport.

“To have to give it up because of an incident of racism and discrimination really stuck with me through the years,” said Smith. “As a result, I make it my mission to make it so no kid feels that way again.”

A man crouches down to lace up the skates of a young hockey player.
Smith, shown tying up a young player’s skate, is the chair of Hockey Nova Scotia’s diversity and inclusion task force. (Hockey Nova Scotia)

The award honours O’Ree, a former NHL forward originally from Fredericton. In 1958, he became the first Black player to play in an NHL game.

For more than two decades after he retired, he served as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, travelling across North America. He visited schools and minor hockey programs to share his story and experiences and to promote messages of inclusion, dedication and confidence.

Smith shared his love of the game in Nova Scotia by creating safe and welcoming spaces for everyone. He served as chair of Hockey Nova Scotia’s diversity and inclusion task force and now sits on the board of directors as chair of diversity and inclusion.

He also serves as secretary to the Black Ice Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame Society, a non-profit organization highlighting and celebrating Black achievement in sport.

“Our Black youth ice hockey program, our partnership with the Indigenous girls hockey program, our new Canadians hockey program, we think we are making an improvement in diversity in this game,” said Smith. “We are making the game more welcoming for all communities.”

A man wearing a black jacket and helmet smiles at the camera.
Smith coached two minor hockey teams this season. (Hockey Nova Scotia)

Hockey Nova Scotia’s Black Youth Ice Hockey Program, which strives to increase diversity in the game by introducing the sport to more than 30 young Black Nova Scotians each season, has seen several graduates advance to elite levels of the sport in the province.

Smith is one of three finalists in Canada. Saroya Tinker of Toronto and Derek Klein of Shellbrook, Sask., are the others.

Five fists raised, different shades of brown skin, next to text that says Being Black in Canada surrounded by an orange and red border.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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