When the phone line connects, I hear the faint rustle of footsteps before Blake Bolden’s voice. It’s early June, and Bolden and I have carved out some time to discuss how the intensifying tumult of the past couple weeks has collided with her life as one of hockey’s long-underappreciated trailblazers. But given the wave that’s now enveloped her — the outpouring of support, the questions without simple answers, the quickening stream of requests for her voice in stories, panel discussions and podcast episodes — the only minutes left to spare for this conversation come during her Wednesday morning grocery run, the line between sharing her experiences and actually experiencing them beginning to blur. There’s an unwavering calm in her voice, even as she maps out the painful path Black hockey players navigate through the game, a reminder that what some view as a seismic cultural awakening is, for many, nothing new — that the ostensible exposure of systemic racism in so many facets of our lives is far less a puzzle finally pieced together and far more a case of eyes finally opening to an image that’s been laid out on the streets for lifetimes.
Amid the low clatter of carts and baskets, Bolden reflects on the hockey world’s similarly delayed realization; how it’s just now openly recognizing an issue that’s been raised to no avail time and time again by those who suffer the effects of systemic racism. Belated as it may be, it’s a welcome sight to see people finally taking action, she says. Few would have a better sense of that recent progress than Bolden, the first Black woman to ever suit up in the NWHL, the first selected in the first round of the CWHL draft, and more recently the first to become an NHL scout after joining the Los Angeles Kings in January. I ask her where she believes the women’s game is at in terms of its effort to be an anti-racist space, and where it was before May 25.
“That’s a really hard question,” she says, pausing for a moment. “I think what everyone is realizing is that race is a part of hockey, and if we are constantly saying that hockey is for everyone, we need to do a better job of being inclusive and having conversations.
“And I definitely think that everybody knows we were not having conversations.”
The reasons for that silence are both varied and indefensibly simple, but as a movement demanding the abolishment of systemic racism has galvanized the masses, the hockey world has finally stopped to take stock of its failings. While the process of correcting them has only just begun, Bolden has emerged as a leader in that effort, and the fact that she has is crucially important. Because her voice, and the voices of other Black women in the game — long silenced or drowned out, long sitting at the intersection of some of hockey’s deepest biases — will be essential for any hope of this moment of possibility resulting in the sport moving forward in a meaningful way. Progress will come with the game’s Black voices at the fore — the question is simply whether the hockey world is finally ready to listen.
On May 26, the streets of Minneapolis filled with smoke, with unrest, with voices — strained in grief-stricken desperation — escalating in their calls for justice. One day prior, a 46-year-old Black man named George Floyd had been killed on those same streets, pleading for breath while pinned under the knee of a white police officer named Derek Chauvin.
From the consequences of Chauvin’s refusal to release Floyd, to let him stand, to let him breathe, came a demand for a different release — one from a system that similarly pushes down upon Black people the unending burden of, at best, unwarranted doubt and distrust, and at worst, violent physical harm. And from those calls to dismantle mechanisms of oppression came a reckoning that’s spread from industry to industry.
“There was something about the witnessing of George Floyd’s last breaths that has become a collective phenomenon,” civil rights icon Dr. Angela Davis said during a University of California Humanities Research Institute panel discussion on the movement in early June. “That we’ve all been transformed because we’ve all seen the last nine minutes of this brother’s life. I think that emotional connection has been very much lacking in our movements prior to this more recent era. And it seems to me that we all feel differently because we witnessed it.”
Following from that feeling of collective horror, calls for justice have permeated even those spaces whose occupants have long sat unmoved and unwilling to hear them. Professional hockey, the whitest and least accessible of the major North American sports, is one such space. Its foundational flaws had been pushed into the spotlight yet again as recently as six days before Floyd was killed, when Akim Aliu bravely stepped forward with his story of a career’s worth of trauma in The Player’s Tribune. But the protests that swept through Minneapolis and across the globe dropped that conversation at the sport’s doorstep and hammered down on the bell. On May 29, Evander Kane appeared on ESPN’s First Take to call on the NHL’s white stars for support, asking the league’s marquee names to use their platforms to speak out about racism in the game. And they answered, a wave of social media statements spilling out across the web, with seemingly every star in the league condemning systemic racism — or at least expressing astonishment that it existed.
But as that ostensible turning point came, a familiar dynamic revealed itself. As often seems to be the case when the sports world forays into social justice, the voices of Black women were pushed to the background. We see it when discussions of Colin Kaepernick and his historic protests fail to properly acknowledge the impact of Maya Moore — who walked away from WNBA dominance to advocate for prison reform and help free a wrongfully convicted man, and whose Minnesota Lynx were the first franchise in pro sports to support Black Lives Matter. And we see it now in the Hockey Diversity Alliance.
Founded by a group of seven past and present NHLers, led by Aliu and Kane, there’s no question the HDA’s entrance into the movement has been an important, positive piece of progress. But so far, its focus has been fixed only on the men’s game, omitting the voices of Black women who would only strengthen their message. Such is the case for the hockey community at large, as well, which, even as it takes long-needed steps forward, holds itself back by overlooking the anti-racist work spurred by leaders in the women’s game.
Canadian Olympian Sarah Nurse kicked that work off on the same day as Kane, sending out messages of her own about Floyd’s killing and her experiences with racism in Canada. “Hearing about George Floyd shook me and I can’t tip-toe around this,” Nurse wrote. “We shouldn’t have to fear for our black family. We have to change. We have to have conversations. We have to start challenging belief systems. We have to educate ourselves. We have to stand up for what is right. We can’t stay silent.”
That the hockey community has rarely reacted well to this type of honesty gave Nurse pause before hitting ‘send,’ though. “I absolutely was very hesitant to speak out,” she says. “I was honestly just angry that this was getting ignored, and I know that I have a platform, however small- or large-scale it is. I sat there with that tweet probably in my drafts for about an hour because I was like, ‘Do I want to kind of tip-toe across this line right now?’ … But I wanted to share an experience of mine and I really wanted to help people understand and see the true injustices that were going on.”
The next day, one of the game’s youngest and most involved leaders, Saroya Tinker — recently drafted fourth overall by the NWHL’s Metropolitan Riveters — took that step, too, sharing her own thoughts on how racism corrodes women’s hockey. “I wanted to speak up and be a voice in the game, because growing up I didn’t have another Black role model to look up to necessarily,” she says, “and I think that’s so important, to support each other as Black women in sport and in hockey, specifically, because there aren’t a lot of us.”
Past speaking up, Tinker’s set out to actively engage with all those only just realizing they have a responsibility to contribute to anti-racist work. She’s posted a steady stream of educational resources, put out an invitation to field questions in her DMs, and facilitated donations to organizations fighting racism in sport and police brutality. In July, she took those efforts to lead a step further, launching her own mentorship program for young women. “It’s important to use your platform to the best of your advantage, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do,” she says. “Because I want to be that leader, and be that voice for other women of colour.”
That Tinker’s resolved to ensure her voice rings out loudly in the hockey world is key, because without such steps, discussions of race don’t tend to emerge naturally in the women’s game, says Nurse — a result of the usual complexion of those locker rooms.
“It is a lot of white players,” she says. “There are not a lot of Black players, there are not a lot of Indigenous players, there are not a lot of other visible minorities. So, I guess when you think of that, race isn’t a topic that comes up for us very often — it’s something that we don’t really talk about.”
If you’ve never come face-to-face with racism, never had it directed at your own skin, you might envision it only in the extreme — moments grounded in the deepest and most traumatic of conflicts — or in the abstract — an amorphous inconvenience that somehow crystallizes into a quieter sort of intentional oppression. But the daily experience goes beyond this, still.
In between these precise inflictions, racism is doled out more haphazardly, spilled along the sidewalk for people of colour to twist and tip-toe around, lest we step through with purpose and risk offending the spillers by splashing around and causing a scene. It’s at times subtle, and far-reaching. Ta-Nehisi Coates summarizes the range aptly in his 2012 piece, ‘Fear of a Black President.’ “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred,” he says. “It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.”
This is what the everyday looks like for Black women in the game — an unending skepticism that tends to seep into even mundane interactions, all while the threat of more acute injustice hangs overhead. “You have people who play hockey for the love of the game, and it’s totally okay, people don’t bat an eye,” says Nurse. “And then as soon as you have somebody who doesn’t necessarily fit in the mold, it’s like, ‘Are you wasting your time doing this? Why are you doing this?’ And there’s a lot of questions.”
Sometimes, those questions come without even a single word uttered. “It’s really all, I think, in the facial expressions. The kind of shock that you can see immediately on people’s faces, that they don’t really even realize they’re doing,” says American defender Kelsey Koelzer, the first Black player drafted first overall in any North American pro hockey league. “The shock that you see on people’s faces when I tell them that I play ice hockey, I went to Princeton, I was captain of the women’s ice hockey team — all different kinds of things.”
Sometimes that skepticism seeps in as it did for Tinker, through a years-long collection of tense moments that leave Black players isolated from their teammates. Other times, it arrives more bluntly, in a comment that reads like a routine chirp to the oblivious, but is well-understood by those who’ve seen a similar bias before. “I think of growing up,” Nurse recalls, “of being in locker rooms and being told that my curly, frizzy ponytail that was coming out of the back of my helmet was nasty and disgusting.”
The effort in women’s hockey to build a space devoid of these types of incidents has been slow-moving, says Erica Ayala, a New York-based journalist who’s covered the game for the past half-decade and recently launched a podcast series, Social Justice in Women’s Hockey, to facilitate the types of conversations needed to quicken that pace. “I think the thing we must remember is that this past week is not the first time that I have felt emotionally burdened in the women’s hockey space — nor, dare I say, that either [Tinker or Bolden] have felt emotionally burdened by how they identify, how hockey identifies them, and how there is a lack of understanding and conversation,” she says a week and a half after Nurse’s tweet. “So, on the one hand, while it’s nice to be seen and to be supported in this space, there’s also — at least, I’ll speak for me — a disappointment that I was never seen in this space before, and that concern for my well-being, mentally, physically and emotionally, didn’t necessarily seem to rise to the top.”
In Bolden’s eyes, part of that disconnect may lie in the other overarching pressures facing the women’s game. “Women have been fighting for the attention of being recognized, of having a sustainable wage to play the sport we love,” she says. “So, we have all of these challenges that sometimes we’re not focused on other issues, you know what I’m saying? And I think that was a part of the ignorance behind not understanding how African-American or Black players or people of colour feel when they play the sport of hockey.”
But also key in enabling the silence about race is a more fundamental issue, the absence of a built-in space for these conversations to occur. “I’ve started asking more white athletes these questions,” says Ayala, “and what I have found, at least [is] it’s not that there’s not an awareness, but there is a level of trepidation, and a lack of a baseline and fundamental, foundational approach to having difficult conversations.”
Hilary Knight, who’s been among the most prominent names in the women’s game for the past decade and is the best-known white player in women’s hockey to voice her support for the Black Lives Matter movement, has seen that hesitance play out firsthand. “A majority of people in that locker room have never experienced racial injustice, because they’re white. So, it’s uncomfortable,” she says. “And I think for the most part hockey players are extremely, how do I put this — they don’t necessarily want to speak on things they don’t feel comfortable speaking on, or haven’t lived. I think until now, people just felt that it wasn’t their space to share, in terms of championing a cause. I think that’s where a lot of athletes have been incorrect for many years.”
That fear of engaging brings us back to this moment. Because while the men’s side saw a cacophony raised in response to the call for white players to use their voices in support of the cause, the same type of reaction, notes Ayala, hasn’t come from the majority of prominent white stars in the NWHL and Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. While Knight penned a lengthy letter about the need for change and pointed her fans to specific resources and places to donate, few other players of her stature in the women’s game did the same — or made any public comment whatsoever.
And, looking closer at the outpouring of support on the men’s side, it’s possible that a decent portion of it was, at least in part, a result of the brighter spotlight beaming down on the NHL; that the more muted response seen in the women’s game is more indicative of where hockey is truly at behind closed doors. Understanding where the sport and its stars sit on that spectrum is pivotal, because the change that’s needed only comes when those on the inside are moved to act even when no one’s watching.
The nature of the support from the women’s game’s best is key, also, because players speaking out publicly still deliver a particular message to a fanbase that needs to hear it — and silence delivers another. “In any sport, you have a lot of young players that look up to the bigger names and … really follow them closely online,” says Koelzer. “So, I think that that can be a huge asset and a key part of helping to ensure the message is getting through to the younger generation, the next generation of younger players that is going to impact whether we are truly growing the game of hockey.”
“You can’t be an athlete in this day and age and just not do anything with your platform,” adds Knight. “That’s why sport is so special, because we have this unique perspective that we can provide, and also a voice that we can amplify. And we can amplify other voices.”
Seeing more voices speak out throughout the hockey world requires education; a deeper understanding of what’s long occurred outside the bubble of privilege, and a deeper sense of the cost of staying silent. While white players in the women’s hockey community might not have been as vocal in their support for this movement, those interviewed for this story say they’ve seen those conversations, that learning process, begin behind the scenes.
“We obviously haven’t seen a ton of players directly speak out or make statements but what I have been seeing from many women’s hockey players — past and present teammates — is a lot of education and learning and really sharing information,” says Nurse.
What’s meant most for Koelzer has been the steps taken by white players to finally reflect on how their experience in the sport has differed from teammates who come from other communities. “I think people are taking responsibility and realizing just how hard it can be to be a player of colour in the game of hockey in general,” she says, “and really gathering behind teammates that they respect and players of colour that they know, kind of taking it upon themselves to educate themselves and learn more.”
For Tinker, it’s the array of teammates who’ve made the effort that’s been most remarkable — not just the ones she’s set to join next season with the Riveters, but also those from her past, who caused her at one point to consider walking away from the sport altogether. “A lot of my teammates have reached out and even brought up specific situations, where they were like, ‘Wow, this wasn’t okay for me to say. This wasn’t okay for me to do,’ and I definitely appreciate that,” she says, “because that shows improvement. It shows that they’re recognizing the places that they’ve gone wrong.”
In terms of their wider social impact, these one-on-one conversations are limited, but there has been one exception: an earnest and wide-ranging discussion between Bolden and her former Boston College teammate, Allie Thunstrum, which was hashed out in the public eye courtesy of Ayala’s series.
It started with a tweet from Thunstrom, a misguided comment on the damage done by the protests consuming her home state — the one in which she also plays as a member of the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps — soon followed by a wave of backlash. Immediately apologetic, Thunstrom reached out to Bolden in hopes of educating herself on the movement. “I think there was trust there, that Allie reached out to someone who she hasn’t played with in a number of years … I think more of that in the hockey space is what’s needed,” says Ayala. “But I also think what’s important is that both of them came to the table in our conversation with things that they never before had been comfortable saying out loud, and they both opened their eyes to things that maybe they in passing understood but didn’t have a deep understanding of.”
Up to that point, the hockey world had done little more than issue statements of intent, vowing to do better without laying out how exactly that might happen. Bolden and Thunstrom provided a blueprint for, at least, the bare minimum of what’s needed to truly move forward: an uncomfortable, honest dialogue — and theirs hasn’t yet subsided. “She and I have had amazing conversations [since],” Bolden says, “about her learning more and peeling back different layers of Black history. … And she’s just like, ‘I’m totally flipped over, my life is changed.’ And I think that happens for people when they have the conversations or listen to conversations like that, because that will hopefully spark something within them to be more curious and ask more questions.”
Knight echoes that sentiment, saying this type of dialogue is a crucial first step for the needed growth in the game. “I think the conversations are instrumental to change. I think you have to be able to take the time to listen and to educate yourself as to what’s going on — what’s been going on for centuries — and then how to be a facilitator of change and be an ally,” she says. “And be active with that word. … It’s not going to be done overnight. It’s going to be constant work, and it’s going to take a lot of time.”
But even as these conversations, both public and private, move things forward, they come at a price, and it’s one paid not by the people just learning about these issues but by the ones who live and have lived with them every day, the game’s Black women. “It is emotionally draining, for sure,” says Tinker of her experience in the weeks after the protests began. “But I think that the questions that have been asked have been important. And me having one white parent and one Black parent, I know that there are questions that white people have, and I know that my own family members have been asking me questions. So, I know that there are things that people want to ask about, and I think it’s so important to provide an open platform for them to do that, and feel open to ask. Because that’s the only way people learn.”
It’s encouraging to hear about these discussions, this progress. But it’s disheartening at the same time, the idea that the most positive change occurring still puts the work of repairing the system on the people most harmed by it; that the best we’ve seen from the sport is those unburdened by racism reaching out to those who are, and adding the burden of explaining how it all works.
For Bolden, that educational labour is simply part of the deal, the price of being tabbed a trailblazer. “I mean, it’s what I’m here for,” she says. “If I am this figure in our sport, I need to have a voice, and I need to share my story, because that’s what I’ve told hundreds of people that have listened to me — sharing stories is what’s important. Everybody has an individual story to give.”
And though answering the same rudimentary questions over and over is exhausting, Bolden doesn’t have to dig too far back to remember a time when no one was asking them. “I am amazed, honestly, about how much we are paying attention to this issue — it is refreshing,” she says. “Saroya, different Black people that play hockey, are coming up and saying, ‘Listen, I have something to say.’ When I was Saroya’s age… there wasn’t [this] kind of a situation for me to insert myself, and I just feel like in this day and age, we’re able to come together and pull each other up.”
It took just one day for the debate around Colin Kaepernick’s now-historic decision back in 2016 to make it to the women’s hockey world. On August 26 of that year, Kaepernick’s peaceful protest began when he remained seated as the national anthem was sung during a San Francisco 49ers pre-season game. On August 27, American star Kendall Coyne Schofield tweeted about being “disgusted” by the quarterback’s actions.
For fans of women’s hockey whose skin bore more of a resemblance to Kaepernick’s than Coyne Schofield’s, the comment held a particular weight, which only increased as the winger grew to become arguably the most prominent star in women’s hockey after her quick-footed feat at the 2019 NHL All-Star Game.
But as Kaepernick’s message moved into the mainstream in recent months, and as the hockey world began to embrace it, Coyne Schofield stepped forward and owned the since-deleted tweet. “It was NEVER about the flag,” she posted three days after Nurse’s statement. “It was never about my family members who serve(d). It wasn’t about me. It always was and IS about George Floyd and the countless others who came before him.”
While some remain unsatisfied with the apology given the context in which it came, it was important, nonetheless. Because just as it is crucial to encourage those who quietly believe that Black lives matter to speak up, so too is it significant to encourage unlearning of the type of rhetoric that vilified Kaepernick over the past half-decade, and to allow space for people to change their minds for the better.
“I definitely applaud her for recognizing her mistake and ultimately, after being called out for it, calling herself out for it,” says Nurse. “I think that’s a huge step in the growth and understanding and learning, because people are going to make mistakes. I’m going to make mistakes. I’m not always going to say the right thing. But it’s when that problem, or that mistake, is identified, how you react to it … That’s what it’s all about.”
Bolden and Tinker echoed that sentiment, noting the importance of not simply using one’s platform to proclaim what should be obvious — that systemic racism is cruel and Floyd’s death was unjust — but showing those who’ve resisted messages of inclusion a path back. “I give her a ton of respect for being willing to self-reflect and realize that that wasn’t the intention of that action,” adds Koelzer. “Being willing to publicly admit that is huge, and it takes a ton of character. … I think a lot of people can take a page out of her book.”
For those who do, though, here’s hoping it’s Page 1 of plenty. Because while Coyne Schofield’s admission may have helped the game move forward, the lack of wider discussion of the impact of her original words lays bare the issues still deeply ingrained in the sport. And while her admission, or the myriad condemnations of racism from the NHL’s best, or the general swell of social media support signify an intention to address these issues, ultimately their usefulness will lie only in how they set the stage for further action in pursuit of meaningful change. Genuine support means nothing less than a daily and lifelong commitment to supporting BIPOC teammates, opponents, neighbours, strangers; not simply a single brave moment.
What does that long-term commitment look like in the context of hockey? It begins off the ice, says Koelzer. It comes down to the simple yet seemingly gargantuan task of white players educating themselves on how to be actively anti-racist. “I think it does start in the locker room, not on the ice,” she says, “in terms of helping make people feel accepted and comfortable and like they belong there. So, I hope that this at least, at the minimum, makes people self-reflect on how they’ve potentially treated others in the past and even how they present themselves at the rink and within the hockey community.”
The sport’s path forward shouldn’t rely only on the hope that players will be able to come to their own conclusions about how to act, though. It’s the responsibility, too, of the teams and leagues they play for to support that effort; to educate white players on racial equality. Few have a better grasp of the current state of that support than Knight, who, over the course of her career, has suited up for the NCAA, CWHL, NWHL, PWHPA and for Team USA. Asked what kinds of resources were offered in the past to educate players about racism, diversity and inclusion in the locker room, Knight answered simply and honestly: “I mean, not many.”
By the sport’s own avowed principles, basic mutual respect should already be a foundational aspect of how locker rooms operate. The importance of team unity has long been seen as an essential and unanimously accepted part of building winning rosters. Every conversation about champions, about talented coaches and historic captains, comes back to a vision of a group pulling in one direction. So, why does that same principle not extend to situations where racism is involved, where particular, avoidable interactions leave some disconnected from the rest, fracturing that overarching goal?
“If we’re all aware, we can all shut it down and it doesn’t have to be the Black person in the room saying, ‘Hey guys, that was racist!’” says Bolden. “If we can all be educated and know, maybe have guidelines of ethics on race and understanding what the heck microaggressions even are, and the things that should or shouldn’t be said, that would be great.”
And once that education is in place, once those conversations are being had, bring real consequences for those who continue to offend, says Nurse: “Ultimately we need to see policies and practices put in place, with a top-down approach — this needs to start at the professional level, go down through college, junior, minor, youth hockey. There need to be policies in place that have an absolute zero tolerance for racism, racial slurs, insensitivities — everything.” Most importantly, adds Tinker, those policies need to be shaped by people who better understand the experiences of those who will actually be affected by them — Black voices need to be centred, not catered to. “I feel like the Black people have not been heard, and it’s been up to the white people to display how they want to improve,” she says. “Whereas, they should be getting our input.”
Koelzer, who’s set to soon make the jump to the coaching ranks, having been hired to run the newly established women’s hockey program at Arcadia University, stresses the coach’s crucial role in building an anti-racist environment, too. It’s about more than simply spurring dialogue, she says. It also comes down to communicating how exactly that dialogue needs to take place. “It is definitely [the coach’s] responsibility to make sure that these conversations are being had, and that they’re being had in a respectful manner, so that folks feel comfortable and feel open and willing to learn, and willing to self-reflect instead of feeling attacked,” she says. “I think that’s an important aspect of having all these conversations, because ultimately if someone’s shutting down and not willing to really reflect and really learn, then there really is no point in having the conversation.”
Rewind through the years before those potential conversations in college- or pro-level locker rooms, and you’ll see plenty of instances of a more foundational issue, though. One of hockey’s key systemic failures has long been its inability to fully reflect the fandom that devotes itself to the sport. Bolden’s earliest days in hockey paint a telling picture of those failures, and how they cascade through every level of the game. “I started, growing up, being the only Black person in, what I saw, really the entire league,” she recalls of her younger days in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. “I would travel to Canada and go to these places at a young age, and I wouldn’t see Black people.”
That’s beginning to change, she says, but continuing to alter those demographics means doubling down on the grassroots programs in place, and expanding them further. It’s why, on top of her scouting duties for the Kings, Bolden’s recently taken on a lead role guiding the organization’s Inclusion Initiative, which among its eight areas of focus includes two directly related to youth hockey.
But that’s only a fraction of the overall need for an altered vision of the game. “From the ice, from the players, up to the board rooms and the corporate executives, we need to see representation,” adds Nurse. “We need to see more than just white men around our game. … We need to make that commitment to each other, saying ‘Diversity is important, and we’re going to show you that diversity’s important. We’re going to put people in charge that have a diverse background.’ Whether that’s men, whether that’s women; Black, Brown, Indigenous, LGBTQ community members, we need to have diversity in all aspects of our hockey community.”
Tinker got a firsthand glimpse of the value of being in a locker room that’s just a little bit more diverse during her final year before moving on to the pro ranks. At the beginning of the 2019–20 season, Kiersten Goode joined her on the Yale University squad, marking the first time in all the years Tinker had played hockey that she wasn’t the only Black woman on the roster. “That was so exciting for me. … It was just an instant connection with her,” Tinker says. “It was nice to know that what you were experiencing was being experienced by someone else, and you’re not just, you know, going crazy. So I think that it was so important to have that.”
Just as a more diverse vision of the sport means looking to the highest-ranking positions within its most influential organizations, and to those representing them at ice level, it also means looking beyond those organizations altogether. It means reaching off the ice and into the stands to support the efforts of groups like Black Girl Hockey Club, which has for years been working to carve out an inclusive space for Black women among hockey lovers. “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,” BGHC founder Renee Hess told Sportsnet in an interview earlier this year. “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?”
If this moment within the sport moves us anywhere near meaningful change, hopefully we all are. Hopefully those with the power to open the door, especially, understand the immense need to bring new perspectives into the game. And if they need some guidance on how best to do so, Ayala has a simple three-word approach: “Hire Black women,” she says. “That matters, because Black women in a lot of ways are tapped into a lot of these intersects in society that we are talking about right now. … When you hire Black women, there’s just a care, because of the collective lived experience. And then the unique and individual lived experience that that woman will bring, it pivots and tilts the frame of the conversation.
“And hockey is in desperate need of a pivot and a tilt.”
There’s a crucial yet often overlooked through line that runs the length of the uprisings that have overtaken the United States, across the chain of protests around the globe that followed, and back through the movement’s early history. It’s found in the faces leading the marches in city after city, and it’s found in the names that crafted the name of this now-undeniable movement as a whole.
“It’s extremely important to recognize the feminist dimension of these new movements,” Davis pointed out during that early-June UCHRI panel, “and to think about a kind of genealogy that goes back to the emergence of Black Lives Matter, and new feminist notions of leadership that are collective.”
As with Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Opal Tometi’s Black Lives Matter movement, which has served as the catalyst for this global turn towards anti-racism, the hockey world’s own contribution to that effort hinges upon its willingness to centre the voices and perspectives of Black women; its willingness to reimagine what leadership looks like in a world that’s long been dominated by white men.
“A lot of people see that as a release of power. But think of it this way — if we think of hockey as a business, businesses should always want the best advantage, the best strategy, to make their business successful,” says Ayala. “Right now, the hockey strategy, the culture of hockey, is not working in a society that is enraged and in grief about what has happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto. … I think that it’s high time that Black women are able to participate, and are able to be valued. It’s high time that Black women are given the opportunity to share what we know, to share our knowledge, and to bring the sport of hockey forward.”
The leaders that are right here, calling for change and ready to guide the process, illustrate Ayala’s point. Because they approach this need for progress with perspectives shaped by so much more than having laced up a pair of skates.
It’s Tinker, who speaks of the importance of lifting up Black players in the women’s game not only from her experience as one, but from having just completed a thesis at Yale that saw her study in minute detail the ways in which Black women in sports are portrayed in the media, and the mental health implications of those portrayals.
It’s Bolden, whose nuanced thoughts on the need for white players to be just as outraged as their Black teammates about the deep, systemic flaws in how policing functions in North America are shaped not only by the community she comes from, but by her dad — who, aside from first introducing her to hockey and nurturing her love for the game, also spent decades as a white police officer in a predominantly Black neighbourhood in Cleveland.
It’s Nurse, who stresses the importance of understanding the historical context of the movement we currently find ourselves in, of using that lens to better appreciate the need for hockey to address its most harmful flaws, because of what her dad, a history teacher, instilled in her from childhood.
It’s Koelzer, whose understanding of the intricacies of those all-important locker-room relationships stemmed first from years sitting in stalls and navigating them as a player, but who now sees the responsibility and challenges that exist for those shaping that environment from the coach’s office.
And it’s Kim Davis — the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs — who, despite shouldering the burden of being the public face of the effort to eradicate deeply rooted racism from her sport, has remained unfazed by the slow, intentional pace of her work.
“We have had a lot of what I call ‘diversity theatre’ play out over the past couple of decades — a sense of progress that has not been systemic and sustainable over time,” Davis said in a recent interview with Sportsnet 590 The Fan. “And that’s the real work that still has to be done.
“…This is a journey, it’s not an event. We have to build trust and new ways of operating together, and that’s going to take time. Typically, we get weary. We want quick fixes and we want quick wins. And this work is not going to happen overnight — the problem didn’t occur overnight and the solution isn’t going to happen overnight. So, we are going to have to be diligent and focused on the long game.”
For Tinker, and all others in the women’s hockey community alongside her, focus on the long game is nothing new. Pursuit of a better future that sits months or years away is part and parcel with suiting up at all. Just as understanding the impact of a painful past, and its systemic legacy, are built into life as a Black player in the sport. It’s why the voices that lead the game forward will be like hers — ones who understand that change will come only through accepting nothing less, ones who were long silenced but are now emboldened to stand their ground. Ones who are here, first and foremost, for the next ones.
“That’s one of the main reasons I chose to continue playing, just making sure that I’m making a path for those younger Black girls that want to play the game,” Tinker says. “Because it should be an open floor. They should be welcome to play. And I didn’t necessarily have those girls to look up to when I was younger. So, I want to be that person.”
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