Q&A: How Renee Hess and the Black Girl Hockey Club are helping the game grow

Members of the Black Girl Hockey Club at a recent event in Brooklyn. (Courtesy Renee Hess/Black Girl Hockey Club).

TORONTO — There’s something particular about the sensation of going to your first NHL game, about the sound of it, the feel of it.

It’s hearing ice crackle under skates as players whip around the rink, being amid the murmurs and groans from the crowd punctuated by explosive cheers, the scent of the concession stand’s best all around you.

Renee Hess has that indelible memory sitting ready and waiting to recall, its impact on her past couple years an immeasurable one. It was Stars vs. Ducks at Anaheim’s Honda Center in 2016, the first of those teams being the club of choice for a friend of hers who convinced her to give the sport a try, the latter being the closest option for the California native.

Falling in love with sport after being unintentionally immersed in Pittsburgh’s hockey obsession a few years prior, Hess found herself fully invested upon getting to see an NHL game in person.

But the experience also came with an uncomfortable realization.

“I remember being a little intimidated, a little unnerved, because walking into a hockey arena, I didn’t see any faces that looked like mine. I didn’t see any women of colour there, any Black women,” Hess says. “After I’d gone to a couple live games, I started wondering, ‘Where are all the Black women fans?’ I had been pretty active on Twitter for a few years, so I started looking for Black girl hockey fans online, seeing if I could find where these women were. And I think I found a few!”

Hess did far more than that — in 2018, she founded the Black Girl Hockey Club, hoping to bring together Black women to enjoy hockey games, learn about the sport, and celebrate the Black community’s history in the game. It’s since grown to number its members in the hundreds, with organized meet-ups in NHL towns all over the United States, and events with Black players and community leaders focused on discussing diversity and inclusion in hockey.

For Hess, though, the original goal was much simpler.

“I always say it was a little bit of a selfish endeavour, because I wanted to have Black women friends that I could go to hockey games with. None of my friends or family were really into the sport, and when I would go to games, it’s very noticeable that there’s not a lot of women of colour at hockey games,” she says. “It became evident to me as I was kind of looking for other Black women in the hockey community that there needed to be a place for Black women, so that we could find each other. Because I was finding fans of colour — men, women, LGBTQ folk — but they didn’t know that the other ones existed.

“Every single one of us felt like a unicorn.”

Fresh off a Black Girl Hockey Club meet-up in Raleigh, Hess caught up with Sportsnet to discuss the Club’s transition into a non-profit organization, the importance of representation in the sports world, and creating a safe space for Black women to enjoy the game of hockey.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Sportsnet: Let’s go back to the beginning. Tell us about your first memories with hockey and how you first fell in love with the game?

Hess: You know what, I’m not a lifelong fan. I actually discovered the game about a decade ago. I was travelling — I work in education, and I was at an academic conference in Pittsburgh and I came across a bunch of fans getting out of a game. And then, while I was in town, I saw one of the TVs at a restaurant playing the hockey game. And I asked somebody, you know, ‘What’s going on? Why are you guys all into this hockey sport? We’re America, we’re not Canada.’ And they said, ‘Well Pittsburgh is a hockey town.’

It intrigued me, but I really didn’t know, I didn’t have an entry point into the sport. I didn’t have any family or friends who were hockey fans. But I had a writer friend that I know is a big sports fan, and I reached out to her whenever I couldn’t hold my curiosity back anymore. I reached out to her a couple years after I was in Pittsburgh, and I said, ‘Tell me about this sport, hockey.’ And she set me up — she sent me to watch a couple games on TV. I started listening to live games. I’m a writer, I’m a reader, I’m a researcher, so I started reading up on hockey, I started looking up hockey terms like a big ol’ nerd. I tried to figure out what was so appealing about this sport.

I went to my first live game in 2016 and I was hooked after that. … But I wasn’t somebody that grew up around hockey. I mean, I’m from California. We’re not a huge hockey place, or at least we weren’t when I was growing up. So it’s relatively an adult endeavour for me.

SN: In terms of going from that first experience to the Black Girl Hockey Club, what went into the thinking to take that step to actually start something and start getting people together?

Hess: In my full-time job at the university I work at, I’m the Associate Director for Community Engagement, so that means I basically work with various community entities to provide them service opportunities from our students. So my bread and butter is connecting community people to our academic setting. … Like I said, I’m an academic so I’m a big ol’ research nerd, so what I did was I put together a survey on Google and sent it out on social media. I was like, ‘This is for minority hockey fans, this is for people of colour who are hockey fans. If you could retweet this, answer some questions, I’m curious.’ I was just very curious — I was thinking maybe I’ll write something about this, you know, this phenomenon of Black folks in hockey, and the lack of visibility.

I started getting answers, people were taking the survey. I was looking through the answers, and it became evident that there were Black women hockey fans, but they just didn’t feel comfortable going to games. A lot of them, they had experienced micro-aggressions when they were involved in hockey events, when they were on hockey social media, stuff like that. So they didn’t want to go to games. They didn’t have anybody to go to a game with, for whatever reason. And I started thinking, ‘Well, I kind of feel the same way — maybe we could get together and go see a game together.’ There’s power in numbers, right?

SN: Tell us about that very first Black Girl Hockey Club meet-up, and what came after that.

Hess: At the end of 2018, we got together for the first time. It had been kind of a summer-long endeavour to get as many people together as we could to go see a hockey game. We decided we were going to go to the East Coast because, I mean, I’m from the West Coast, and I never see any Black women hockey fans out here. And there seemed to be a good number on the East Coast, so I decided I was going to fly to them.

I reached out to every Black person that I knew was a hockey fan and I ended up connecting with Bill Douglas, who now writes for NHL.com, but at the time he was doing the Colour of Hockey blog, as well as a couple other gigs. I reached out to him and he said, ‘Hey well you should talk to my wife. And I’ve got two daughters, and maybe they would want to come to your meet-up. And maybe they can get some of their friends to come, and people that we know.’ So between the Douglas family and myself, we got together 45 women and their kids and their families to come out to watch a Capitals game in December of 2018.

After that, I knew that it was something that we had to keep doing, you know. There was just all these women during that Washington Capitals game that were coming up to me individually saying, ‘This was amazing, I never knew there was this many Black women involved in hockey. So and so lives in my same county and I never knew that her and her son were involved in hockey!’ So, I knew it was something that I had to do. I was called to kind of help this community that I care so much about, Black women — to help them find a way to build a community within the hockey community.

SN: What was the response to the idea in those early days and as things started to grow? Were there any difficulties that came along with that?

Hess: The response has been very positive, for the most part. You know, I think that there’s a culture shift happening in not only hockey culture but specifically in the NHL. The NHL is trying to be more inclusive — not just promoting diversity, but also inclusion. Making fans of colour and the LGBTQ fans and women fans, feel more a part of the hockey community.

So there are people like Kim Davis working in the NHL — that was actually how I met Bill Douglas. I tweeted something out about Kim Davis saying, ‘What is Kim Davis’ role in the NHL?’ In 2017, you didn’t really see a lot about her, they just said that she had been given this job, a VP in the NHL, but there was not really a lot that I could see that she was involved in. I was curious — I was interested in this topic of Black women in hockey. So Bill Douglas reached out and said, ‘Let’s talk about Kim Davis and all the things that she’s kick-starting in the NHL, and let’s see if we can connect you with her to talk to her yourself.’

And I came to find out Kim has put in motion all these different Hockey Is For Everyone initiatives all over the country. And I think Black Girl Hockey Club got to be part of that kick-off, of this inclusivity movement happening in the National Hockey League. You know, there’s always going to be naysayers, and people who don’t appreciate that culture shift, because they lose power and they feel like they might become the minority. But I think that the work is more important than the negativity, and it’s just been a blast. We’ve had so much fun.

SN: It’s amazing to see how much it’s grown and become a well-known part of the hockey world now — what does the day-to-day operation look like now?

Hess: The Black Girl Hockey Club is transitioning to a non-profit organization, because as I was planning these meet-ups, I realized that there was a need specifically for Black girls that play hockey, in terms of education, financial need and programming. So, I decided that instead of making this just a fan group that gets together and goes to hockey games, I wanted to make it a little bit deeper-meaning. I wanted it to have a little bit of a stronger mission. So, I got together with some folks and we decided to turn Black Girl Hockey Club into a non-profit organization — we have a board of directors, we’re starting to develop various programming, we just met this week with a scholarship program committee trying to get scholarships off the ground for Black girl hockey players, in terms of equipment and seasonal scholarships, tournaments, financial assistance, stuff like that.

And of course we have our community events that are such a big part of what Black Girl Hockey Club is all about — creating community and a safe space. And along with that comes diversity and inclusion education. Just recently when I was in New York with the Rangers, I got to sit on a panel with Anson Carter and some local community members, including Tracy Leary of Ice Hockey in Harlem, and we got to talk about Black folks in hockey, and what that looks like and what that means, and what the Rangers are doing in their community.

SN: What does it mean to you to see all this come from an idea that you had, and to see it grow this much this quickly?

Hess: It’s honestly a shock to me sometimes. … It’s been kind of surreal to have people from work and church and my stepmom text me and say, ‘I saw you on TV!’ My mom texted me to tell me she saw me on TV at the nail salon when she was getting her nails done this weekend. So, that’s been kind of surreal. But just to know that the Black Girl Hockey Club and Black women hockey fans, our friends and our families and our allies, are creating a space — my goal is not to just make a space for me, but also for other women, other Black women, so that whenever I leave, that they can come and take my place. That they can come and be there and not have to maybe go through all the drama that I had to go through forging the way.

It’s really been a lot of fun, especially getting to visit various arenas. Under all of this, I’m still a humungous hockey fan and a big ol’ hockey nerd, so it’s just a lot of fun for me to, like, go near the ice at a new arena. When I was in Raleigh, I got to stand by the zamboni when it went out on the ice, you know. And that was just such a treat for me — I was taking pictures, giggling and smiling the whole time, so those types of things are just so much fun for me still. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.

The Black Girl Hockey Club on the scene at a recent NHL game. (Courtesy Renee Hess/Black Girl Hockey Club).

SN: You mentioned Kim Davis, and I read that you met with Jessica Berman from the League as well. Tell us about working with the NHL and what their response has been, and how your talks with them have gone in terms of any support they can provide.

Hess: Kim Davis and her Hockey Is For Everyone team has been really supportive of the Black Girl Hockey Club. They put together that wonderful mobile museum that’s been going around North America the last couple weeks, and Black Girl Hockey Club has a little bit of a feature in there. So, they know what we’re doing, they’ve been very supportive. But you know, also, I’ve got to stick to my truth and my values, so if there’s something that happens in the NHL that perhaps goes against the mission of Black Girl Hockey Club, I’ll have to stand up and say something about it.

But the NHL is looking, I think for the most part, to become part of this culture change. There’s a demographic change happening in America right now — there is going to be a different face of hockey in the next decade. So I think by the NHL embracing organizations like Ice Hockey in Harlem and Black Girl Hockey Club and their Hockey Is For Everyone program, they’re taking steps. They’re taking that initiative to try to embrace the future.

I was lucky enough to participate in a conference call with all 32 hockey clubs in the NHL — including Seattle, which doesn’t quite exist yet — and the conversation topic was engaging, in an authentic way, with the Black community. And I got to talk to all the 32 community managers and volunteer managers, people who are out in their local communities, and it was such a good experience to be able to have that conversation, and know that every single one of these clubs was listening and taking note and trying to understand how to do better, to be more engaged in their local Black communities and LGBTQ communities and with women, specifically. That was such a treat to be able to participate in.

SN: What has the response been from the players that you’ve met through your events at different games?

Hess: I think the one that stands out to me the most was that very first meet-up that we did — the reason we wanted to go to Washington, D.C., in 2018 was because the Capitals had just won the Cup, they have two Black minority owners — Sheila Johnson and Earl Stafford — they had at the time two Black players, Devante Smith-Pelly and Madison Bowey, so it seemed like a perfect place to kick off this endeavour. And when we went, we found out we were going to get to go down to the locker room and meet some of the Capitals players.

Devante Smith-Pelly came down and Braden Holtby, Madison Bowey and Nic Dowd. They came down to the locker room and Devante, he was in shock. He said he’d never seen so many Black women at a hockey game before — he never thought he would see so many Black women at a hockey game. He and Madison were just tickled that … that they were able to be embraced by the community.

And all of the hockey moms there were going up to these very successful Stanley Cup championship-winning players saying, ‘Honey, we support you, we’ve got your back. We’re out here cheering for you. We buy your jersey, we see you on TV, we support you.” It was a really touching moment. I remember sitting in the back of the locker room kind of just watching it all unfold with a huge grin on my face, just taking it all in. Because I truly never thought that something like that would happen. And, little did I know, that was just the beginning.

SN: I know you’ve spent some time with some players from the NWHL as well — how important has it been to you to celebrate women’s hockey and the role models for all those young girls playing the game?

Hess: We were lucky enough last year to go see the NWHL All-Star Game in Nashville — there was a double-header happening … We had a weekend of women’s hockey, and for me, as a West Coast fan, we don’t even get women’s hockey out here — it’s all on the East Coast. So to be able to see the women, Amanda Kessel was there and they had just won the gold medal, it was amazing to see what they’re capable of up close.

It was just such a cool experience. We have so many Black girls who are playing hockey right now and they don’t have people that look like them on the ice, let alone women that look like them on the ice. So to have Blake [Bolden, the first Black player in the NWHL from the United States, and a BGHC member] support us, and Kelsey Koelzer — she came out to our very first meet-up with her mom. We’ve had so much support from the Black women hockey players, and the NWHL in general, and the PWHPA, they’ve been really supportive too.

SN: People at times try to downplay the importance of representation in the game or hosting events the celebrate diversity, but I think your work shows that it’s not just a symbolic gesture — it has a real tangible impact on bringing people into the sport. How do you view the importance of seeing diversity in the game and celebrating it?

Hess: I think with representation, if you get to see people who look like you all the time in media and sports and in offices, in your job, everywhere — you tend to forget what it feels like to not be represented. So, when we do have those few faces, Black women involved in hockey, I think it’s so important for them, for us, to stand up and make space for those little ones that are coming after us. Because if we’re not going to do it, who is going to do it?

Just being able to see players on the ice that look like us, and people in the front office that look like us — you know, me knowing, as a Black girl hockey fan, that Kim Davis is a vice president in the National Hockey League, that means so much to me. Even if I never spoke one word with her, or had her support at all, just knowing she exists in this world, it means so much to me as a Black hockey fan. And having her support, hearing her words, and having her come out to Pittsburgh and hang out with us and support Black Girl Hockey Club, that means the world to us and to all of our members.

SN: Looking at how far things have come for this idea you had, where are you hoping it goes in the future? What kind of long-term impact would you hope to see?

Hess: Honestly, I would love to have a chapter of Black Girl Hockey Club in every major hockey town, in all the NHL towns. Where women and their families and their friends can get together and go to a hockey game. And have hockey-related events. I think of all the things that Black Girl Hockey Club has done, the one that really exemplifies what I would love to see in the future is what we did in Pittsburgh just a couple weeks ago. We got together at the Penguins facility and we got to go see a game, which was amazing and wonderful, but also the next day we had a screening of the Black hockey history documentary Soul On Ice, and we had the director, Kwame Mason, come out, as well as some representatives from local minority-focused Pittsburgh hockey programs. We got to sit around and talk about Black hockey culture in Pittsburgh, and what that looks like.

My goal, putting something like that together, is to amplify the voices of minority hockey players in Pittsburgh. Black Girl Hockey Club comes through and we have this wonderful thing and then we leave — so what’s going on in Pittsburgh after we go? That’s what that event was about. That’s what I see us doing in the future. Diversity and inclusion education, having these discussions where we can frankly talk about how Black people fit into hockey culture, the history of Black people in hockey, what that looks like and what the future of Black hockey culture is.

That’s what I want to see happen every time we get together from now on. I’m spoiled, it was so great. It was such a wonderful experience, so we have to make sure that happens again. That’s my hope.

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