The National Hockey League has announced that Noel Acton, Meredith Lang, and Ryan Francis have been named finalists for the 2022 Willie O’Ree Community Hero award.
Noel Acton, Meredith Lang, and Ryan Francis make up the 2022 nomination group, with the award being given to an individual who “has positively impacted their community, culture, or society through hockey.”
Noel Acton is the founder and executive director of The Tender Bridge, a non-profit supporting over 500 youth in East Baltimore for 20 years. The organiation runs the Baltimore Banners hockey team, which gives at-risk youth a positive community, and an opportunity to seek higher education, secure employment, and break the cycle of violence in their communities.
As The Tender Bridge website states, the organization has a mission ”to guide at-risk East Baltimore youth on the path to become productive citizens. Through their participation in sports and mentoring programs, we change their life outcomes and enable them to bridge to successful adulthood.”
Acton’s work goes beyond the ice, as he regularly opens his home to youth dealing with homelessness.
Lang is the co-founder of the Hockey Ninas and MN Unbounded. Located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Hockey Ninas and MN Unbounded at Under-10 and Under-12 hockey teams comprised of all girls of color. Founded in 2021, Lang, who is Black, has two daughters playing on the tournament teams.
"I wanted them to have the opportunity to play and bond with girls who look like them," Lang said of her reasons for founding the programs to NHL.com.
A native of Cole Harbour, N.S., Francis is the co-founder of Indigenous Girls Hockey Nova Scotia. Francis has worked with Indigenous hockey players for years including with Team Atlantic at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championship. He continues to help build opportunities in hockey for Indigenous women and girls.
The Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award is presented each year at the NHL Awards. The honor is named for Willie’Ree, the first Black player in the NHL.