This column continues the Only One series in which this reporter shares his experiences as the only African American journalist on the scene.
History was made recently at University of Minnesota’s Ridder Arena as well as in the state of Minnesota. The first professional women’s hockey game ever played here — actually the first and second such contests — took place between the Boston Pride of the first-year National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) and the local Minnesota Whitecaps, an elite women’s hockey club.
Boston won 5-1 on December 12. Minnesota’s Allie Thunstrom spoiled the Pride’s shutout bid in game one when she drew Boston goalie Brittany Ott away from the net to play the pick, only to see Thunstrom duke past her and push the puck in the open back of the net after being tripped by two Boston defensemen early in the third period.
“Sometimes you don’t take risks,” explained Blake Bolden, the game’s only Black player on either squad, who talked to the Only One afterwards. “I played with [Thunstrom] at B.C., and she always [has] been extremely fast. I saw that and said, ‘Oh, crap. Get back.’”
Minnesota is an independent club, primarily a post-collegiate competitive platform for former top-level college players to continue playing and to stay in shape — many are vying for Olympic spots. Ridder this season is the Whitecaps’ home sheet.
The Whitecaps evened things up the following day with a 5-4 victory. Coach Robb Stauber said afterwards that his players “were a lot better. There were some costly mistakes, and I’m sure Boston feels the same, that they had some costly mistakes, too.”
Bolden, who in October was featured in a “Sports Odds and Ends” column, signed as a free agent this past summer after playing in the Canadian women’s pro hockey league for two seasons. “I think, playing in both leagues, the competition is great,” she assessed. “There are a lot of great [female] hockey players out there in the CWHL and the NWHL. It’s great, fast and tough.”
The four-team NWHL is primarily located in the Northeast. A league spokeswoman told us that the games thus far have drawn good crowds. Unlike the CWHL, the NWHL players are drawing a modest pay — between $10,000 and $25,000, with a $270,000 salary cap on each team.
Bolden’s first-year salary on the Boston roster has not yet enticed her to give up her day job at a Boston nonprofit. “My job is very lenient,” said the Cleveland, Ohio native. “They are big supporters of what I do.”
Watching the two female pro hockey games wasn’t much different than watching women’s college hockey — both emphasize skill rather than brute force, even though there can be some chippiness at times. In the first game, Bolden laid a Whitecaps player a serious hit at center ice. The Pride defenseman only got caught once, a hooking penalty in the second game.
“I try to stay out of the penalty box,” said Bolden. “If it happens, it happens.”
She remarked that the two-game series was “great.” It was her first trip to Minnesota since her senior year at Boston College several years ago. Being back at Ridder two weekends ago briefly conjured up some “pretty detrimental memories, losing in the Frozen Four semifinals,” she recalled.
The two-game series, according to Boston Coach Bobby Jay, met his team’s objectives. “I thought it was great. It was definitely positives all the way around.”
“I think the fans saw a great game,” said Bolden. She, her Pride teammates, and the Whitecaps players signed autographs and greeted fans after each game.
Hopefully, the NWHL will catch hold and someday become hockey’s WNBA, providing pro opportunities stateside for female pucksters after college.
“I am very lucky to be where I am,” said Bolden.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.