The color of hockey: Diversity on the rise in women’s pro hockey

Conclusion of a three-part column

Blake Bolden
Blake Bolden Charles Hallman/MSR News

Former college teammates Blake Bolden and Kaliya Johnson are now competitors in the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), which started in 2015. On the surface, this isn’t unusual, but in Bolden’s and Johnson’s case, the two female pucksters are among the small handful of Black hockey players.

Angela James, who played 1980-2000, is the first Black woman to play pro hockey and the first Black Canadian to captain a national hockey team (Team Canada).

The Cleveland-born Bolden was the NWHL’s lone Black player when she signed with Boston in 2015. She also was the first Black player in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and the first female player of color to play on championship teams (CWHL, 2015; NWHL, 2016).

“There is a lot more diversity [in hockey], and not just African Americans,” she told us last month when her current Buffalo team was in town to face Minnesota. “It’s great to see.”

“I think [diversity in hockey] is definitely growing, but we have a long way to go,” Johnson said. She spoke to us after last Saturday’s Minnesota-Boston contest in St. Paul. The California-born but raised in Arizona Johnson is in her first season with the club after two years in Connecticut.

Both female defensemen — the 27-year-old Bolden (2009-13) and Johnson (2012-16), who turned 25 on Sunday — are Boston College grads.

During their couple of seasons together at BC, Johnson said of Bolden, “She really took me in as the big sister. That helped me personally and with my identity. It was great to have her as a role model.”

Kaliya Johnson Charles Hallman/MSR News

Before that, it was for Johnson mainly an only-one-puck experience growing up. “It definitely was something I struggled with, finding someone that looks like me to look up to,” she remembers. “It definitely was tough growing up not having [a player of color] to look up to, but when I got to college it definitely helped having Blake there.”

As a youngster, Johnson said she found from the movie The Mighty Ducks, especially the Julie character — the only girl on the boys’ hockey team. “That’s what I wanted to be,” she said.

The NWHL started with four East Coast clubs: Boston, Buffalo, Connecticut and Metropolitan (New Jersey), and this year expanded west by adding Minnesota. Games are usually scheduled for a Saturday-Sunday format. The Minnesota Whitecaps’ home ice is at the Minnesota Wild’s practice facility in downtown St. Paul.

“Minnesota is a great addition to our league,” Bolden pointed out. It’s a fledgling league, but she noted, “I think our benefits definitely have improved. Pay is not equal [to the men’s)], but we are trying to make it so.”

Although the number of Black NWHL players is in low single digits, Johnson earlier this year proudly tweeted, “I used to be a minority in my sport, but no longer.”

Blake Bolden
Blake Bolden in action Charles Hallman/MSR News

More importantly, the chance to play stateside pro hockey isn’t lost on the two female players. “It’s very exciting to have something in the States,” Johnson declared. “It’s good to see hockey is growing overseas, in Canada and here” for women players.

Neither Bolden nor Johnson downplayed their roles as more than just hockey players.

“As women of color, we hope to inspire more girls of any ethnicity and encourage them to play the sport, which is predominately White,” Johnson said. “I never would have thought the last 20 years I would be in the position I have, to have people look up to me. I [want] to encourage people to follow their dreams.”


Related stories:

Part 1The color of hockey: The current state of diversity in a traditionally ‘White’ sport

Part 2The color of hockey: Two Black hockey coaches meet in a historic first

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