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The Black Girl Hockey Club is making sure hockey is for everyone

The NHL wants hockey to be for everyone. The Black Girl Hockey Club — a small group of passionate fans — is helping lay the groundwork for that reality.

“It is definitely lonely, and I wanted to do something about that.”

Those are the words of Renee Hess, speaking with the CBC about her brainchild — the Black Girl Hockey Club. The national news segment is short, just over three minutes long, but it’s a window into a small but growing community of passionate fans who are focused on supporting each other, growing the sport at all levels and making sure that everyone with interest feels comfortable accessing the joy of hockey fandom.

LISTEN: Renee Hess on the BGHC community

In graduate school, while coming back from dinner after an academic conference in Pittsburgh, Hess found herself in the middle of a crowd of Penguins fans leaving the arena. Intrigued by the visceral fervor of the group, a seed was planted.

“I kind of knocked it around, quietly, inside my own head for a while,” Hess told FanSided. “Because I really did not know even where to begin when it came to engaging in sports, but specifically in hockey.”

Hess eventually reached out to a friend who she knew was a sports fan and hockey fan and asked for a guide in getting to know the sport.

“She was the first person I know who would not judge me for not knowing anything about anything,” Hess said. “And she pointed me in the direction of her favorite team which was the Dallas Stars. And I kind of got initiated into the hockey world via social media and listening to games, because they don’t show many on television.

“I was an English major and a literature major and so listening to games was where I actually fell in love with it. Listening to the different announcers, kind of having fun with the language and talking about the sport in such an animated way, it got me excited about it. And all of a sudden I was going to see my first hockey game and I was hooked.”

While her friend’s community may have been Hess’ entry point to hockey fandom, it didn’t take long for her to realize what a narrow slice of hockey culture that community represented.

“I would look around the arena and I wouldn’t see anybody that looked like me. And it was disconcerting,” said Hess. “I am from Southern California. It’s a pretty diverse area. But I would go to an L.A. Kings game or an Anaheim Ducks game and not see any black women. It was kind of nerve-wracking. When you walk into a completely white space as a black woman, immediately I’m thinking about my safety, is someone going to talk to me funny because of the team I like or because of the color of my skin. I’m not really sure, but I just gotta be aware of those things.”

That fear — of a physically unsafe situation or becoming the unintended target of verbal abuse in the stands of professional sports arena — may be unfamiliar to the stereotypical straight white cis male sports fan. But that doesn’t make it any less real. It is certainly not isolated to hockey, but over the past few years, there has been a steady stream of incidents, at all levels of hockey, of fans directing abuse at players, physical incidents on the ice, and even police needing to protect players of color as they arrive at games. As always, the ones that actually get noticed and make the news are just the tip of the iceberg.

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Hess may not have been seeing other hockey fans that looked like her at games, but she was convinced they were out there. Over the next few years, she used social media to network and connect with a small group of hockey fans, all women of color.

“I ended up getting together a group of about half-a-dozen black girls from all across the country in a chat room on Twitter,” said Hess. “We had our little DM group. I jokingly called it the Black Girl Hockey Club because it sounded cute and funny.”

Ayodele Odubela — a data scientist, hockey fan and co-host of the Offensive Zone hockey podcast — was one of the first to join Hess’ small online community. Her path to hockey fandom and her experience in NHL arenas was similar to Hess’.

“I was living in Austin, Texas at the time and a friend took me to a game for her birthday,” Odubela told FanSided. “And I was like, ‘oh, this hockey thing is pretty cool. The sport is fast and not really like football I was used to seeing. And I went on for the next eight years, not really thinking about that shared experience that we as black women have in hockey. But probably like anyone who is a black hockey fan, you go to a game and you don’t really think about it because you don’t see any other black people.”

Later, when Odubela relocated to Southern California, closer to where Hess lives, she joined the club in an official capacity as chairperson of their board of directors.

After putting down online roots, the group decided they wanted to take their digital community into the physical world, meeting up together at an actual game. Several members of the group lived on the East coast so Washington, D.C. — home of the Capitals who, at the time, had two black players on the roster — was chosen as the site. The plan was for the first meet-up to be just for the half-dozen participants in the group chat, but in preparation for the trip, Hess reached out to Bill Douglas, now a regional writer for NHL.com but also the founder of the blog Color of Hockey.

Douglas put Hess in touch with his wife Corinne McIntosh-Douglas, and together they helped connect her with more black women in the D.C. area who might like to attend the game. In December 2018, over 40 people attended the inaugural meet-up, ranging in age from six to 90.

What began as a single event to bring a digital community into the real world, has blossomed. The BGHC held three more meet-ups before the end of the 2018-19 season. This year, they’ve already held meet-ups at games in D.C. and Los Angeles, with additional meet-ups already scheduled for January and March, in Pittsburgh and Dallas. In the spirit of promoting access and meeting the community where it’s at, the group has a sliding scale for membership fees which has helped them build their dues-paying memberships to more than 50. But you don’t have to be an official member to attend a meet-up, subscribe to the newsletter or interact with the community digitally, through Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

LISTEN: Renee Hess on the experience of the first BGHC meet-up

Most fandoms are bound together by something external — adoration and admiration for a musician or an actor or actress, a team or a player, the virtues of a fictional hero or the expansive world they inhabit. The BGHC represents something different. They are fans of hockey, yes, but of different teams and players, different geographic regions, legacies and traditions. What binds the BGHC together is loving the sport of hockey in an environment that has often, explicitly and implicitly, made them feel unwelcome.

Watch videos of the group at any of their meet-ups and you’ll see a rainbow of team colors represented in the jerseys, hats and scarves. It’s an appropriate metaphor for a group that sees “Hockey Is For Everyone” as more than just a well-crafted piece of corporate branding, but as a challenge to make the values of their fandom a living breathing thing.

“The Black Girl Hockey Club is a safe space,” said Hess, “not just for women but we have friends and family members of all genders, ages, sexualities, abilities. We were lucky enough to participate in Pride this year. We kicked off the month of June with the New York Rangers at an event with the Hetrick-Martin Institute, an LGBT-serving institution primarily working with kids of color. We have all sorts of folks in the Black Girl Hockey Club that cross all sorts of lines. I just think it’s so important for us to amplify one another’s voices.”

Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

This intersectionality feels especially poignant when applied across such a broad range of ages. Kids have been a big part of the presence at the BGHC meet-ups, something that Hess made clear is a very intentional part of the plan.

“As a mom, I don’t want to exclude other moms. Because there are so many reasons moms can’t get out and do things we like. Notwithstanding the fact that we have kids. Whenever we’re planning an event like this and we’re saying, ‘come out, come hang out with us,’ one of the big parts of my life is knowing I can bring my daughter. We are all about supporting the community and black women, a lot of us, we got kids. And it makes it just more comfortable for us to be ourselves, bring our families and engage in that way, instead of making it this 21-and-older, adults-only event.”

Amanda Wilkes is a hockey podcaster and the mother of a seven-year-old biracial, hockey-playing daughter. Both she and her daughter attended the BGHC meet-up in Nashville last year.

“I don’t think she really grasps that she’s unique as a biracial female player,” Wilkes said of her daughter, “just because we don’t focus on that kind of thing. But I can see that maybe someday when she figures that out, she can recognize that there’s a group out there for her.”

“They also get to see people that look like them. I just think that’s a really neat thing for them. They can see, ‘I’m not that unusual. It is okay for me to like this sport and to play.”

Wilkes told FanSided a story about the first hockey player she became obsessed with as a fan — Mark Tardif, who played for the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL. As a kid, whenever the Stingrays came to play her hometown Norfolk Admirals, she’d be sitting on the visitors side cheering on Tardif, who happened to be a person of color.

“I look back on it and I guess that’s one of the reasons it never clicked to me that it wasn’t a thing, you know, that he was unique, because he was just my favorite.”

LISTEN: Renee Hess on how the BGHC has changed her own experience at games

Black Girl Hockey Club is in the process of transitioning into a non-profit organization to facilitate diversity education and fundraising for scholarships. The club now has a Board of Directors and a street team who attend games in their area, meeting people and spreading the word about the club. Having found so much success simply bringing this community together, the club has started to ramp up its advocacy work as well.

“That’s so much part of the mission,” said Odubela, “supporting black youth who a lot of times are at a disadvantage and don’t really get to participate in a sport like hockey because of the cost of gear and finance, and the distance and travel.”

Last season, a 12-year-old Minnesota Hockey player named Kalei Forga was relying on help from a GoFundMe to raise the funds it would take to get her and her family to France for a tryout for the 2019 World Selects team. The total price tag for the trip was nearly $15,000, an illustration of the kind of barriers to entry there can be for elite youth players. The Forga family set an initial goal of $3,700 and BGHC helped amplify the fundraising effort. It was then noticed by Matt Dumba, star defenseman for the Minnesota Wild. Dumba donated $500 and shared the fundraiser, helping put the campaign way over the top.

NHL players of color have gone out of their way to connect with and support the club in other ventures as well, helping to amplify their work. Wild forward J.T. Brown donated $3,000 to the BGHC’s own crowdfunding campaign last March, on the heels of that ground-breaking first meet-up. Players like P.K. Subban, Madison Bowey and Devante Smith-Pelley have made time to talk with club members after meet-ups at games.

“Seeing a group of not only black, but black women, joining forces for the love of the game is crazy, and something I never, ever thought I’d see,” Smith-Pelley told ESPN’s The Undefeated after the BGHC’s inaugural meet-up.

Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

Change is slow and the response hasn’t all been positive. Hess and Odubela said that the most common push back they get is from people who feel like that the club is unnecessary, addressing an imagined problem as opposed to a real one or simply exclusionary in a different way. But for every piece of negative feedback there is more than enough positive feedback to justify the work they’re doing.

“We are hearing so many stories of finding that community, from members, to outweigh the thoughts of people who don’t need this, or who feel totally comfortable going to any sports bar and watching their team,” said Odubela.

“It’s not really a surprise to most people that the NHL is a boy’s club. And we’re like, ‘wow, one club of 300 people who don’t have any equity stake in these teams is not going to hurt you.”

LISTEN: Ayodele Odubela on the nature of inclusive spaces

As the BGHC continues to grow it’s clear that their impact will ultimately be felt in more than just arena bleachers and the increasingly diverse ranks of youth hockey. The group connected with Kim Davis, the NHL’s Executive Vice President of Social Impact, Growth Initiatives and Legislative Affairs before that inaugural meet-up and she helped facilitate some of the behind-the-scenes experience the group had in D.C.

For the group’s meet-up in New York City last February, they were invited to visit the league’s Manhattan office and meet with commissioner Gary Bettman. In her September interview with FanSided, Hess spoke highly of the league’s diversity initiatives for the upcoming season, saying, “Whenever I was kind of talking to the NHL at the end of the [2018-19] season, I was really interested to know what they were doing, not only for Black History Month, because that was really cool, but for the rest of the year. The ‘Hockey Is For Everyone’ crew under Kim Davis, they have their bases covered. They’re looking into promoting Hispanic heritage month, they did a great job at Pride. I think they are planning even bigger things for this coming February.”

Davis, who spent more than 20 years building an influential career on Wall Street, joined the league in her new role in 2017. The pace of evolution seems to be constantly increasing in professional sports and her mission, which has plenty of overlap with the BGHC, sounds like it will be a major driver of change for the NHL.

“We have to make sure that our sport is well-positioned culturally, economically and infrastructure-wise to remove those barriers to our sport so that we can create that stronger pipeline of talent for the future,” Davis told ESPN’s The Undefeated in a March, 2019 Q&A.

“Whether it be playing professionally, whether it be in the front office, whether it be officiating or coaching. In all aspects of our sport, it’s important we open it up to these demographics that are going to represent our future.”

Then, in November, Hess was invited to address representatives of all 32 NHL teams on a private conference call on the topic of authentic engagement with their fans for Black History Month. The group is being given an opportunity to speak the truth of their fan experience to those in power and they are well-prepared and eager to make the most of it.

As the league goes about this transformative work, top-down, the BGHC and their community will be leveraging the power of fandom, working towards many of the same goals, bottom-up.

“A lot of people don’t really know how to create that influence because it usually comes from being a kind of organization that has leverage or a stakeholder or some kind of relationship like that. But I do think fans really have a bigger say than they’ve ever had in how teams conduct themselves,” Odubela told FanSided.

“I think that’s definitely the goal, to be able to influence those things a little bit. It’s one of those things where we don’t want to be seen as kind of the agitators, but we do want to push a little bit and we do want to challenge the league to step up in a lot of ways that impact a lot of people of color.”

LISTEN: Renee Hess on the end game for BGHC

Hockey is supposed to be for everyone but just months into the 2019-20 season we’ve already seen Bill Peters fired as head coach of the Calgary Flames for instances of using racist language and allegations of physically assaulting players and legendary commentator Don Cherry fired for xenophobic, anti-immigrant statements made on the air. Anyone can watch a game, read a hockey blog or lace up their skates and grab a stick. But the truth is, hockey is not the same for everyone. The Black Girl Hockey Club is doing their best to turn their fan experience into meaningful change, to make hockey better for everyone.


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