Nina Rodgers, as a young hockey player, wanted one day to integrate the National Hockey League (NHL). “It was a dream growing up,” the WNHL’s Connecticut Whale forward recalled. “I wanted to be the first girl in the NHL.”
The Minnetonka native and Hopkins High School grad instead is the Whale’s only Black player. Rodgers, the only Black woman selected in the 2017 WNHL Draft (17th overall), was a four-year letter winner, two-time all-conference selection, and 2014 Minnesota Ms. Hockey finalist.
Rodgers stressed, “I modeled my game after [Natalie] Darwitz,” the former Gopher star, U.S. National Team captain, and now Hamline’s head women’s hockey coach. “She played at Eagan and went to the U of M. I was fortunate to take lessons from her. She’s my favorite.”
Rodgers went to the U after high school and played on two national title teams (2014, 2016). She also made all-academic in her sophomore year.
“Then I transferred out to BU [Boston University],” she noted. “[Minnesota] wasn’t the right fit for me. BU was the perfect fit. I loved the city.” She played a total of 146 games at Minnesota and BU.
Connecticut played Minnesota last month, the only time Rodgers’ team played in her home state this season, her rookie season. It also was her first time playing in Minnesota in front of family and friends as a pro hockey player as well.
“It means a lot to come back to the same community you grew up playing in,” Rodgers admitted afterward. She especially liked seeing an arena — the Minnesota Whitecaps’ home ice is in downtown St. Paul — packed with young girls “giving me high fives even though I wore [a visiting team’s] jersey.”
However, most Whitecaps games, which are sellouts, aren’t populated with many girls of color, which is not much different from the WNHL itself; Rodgers is among a very few players of color [less than five] playing this season. Nonetheless, these youngsters and possibly future pros are seeing Rodgers and others like her in action.
“Just knowing that people like me can follow your dreams, they can do the same thing,” Rodgers stated. They just need to “work hard…and keep pushing.”
At 5’-5”, Rodgers plays aggressively — she had Connecticut’s only penalty that night, a two-minute minor for body checking in a shutout loss to the host Whitecaps. She leads her team this season in penalty minutes as well.
“Because I’m short, I like playing with the big dogs,” she said. “I’m not afraid to go into the corners, playing rough, not dirty.”
WNHL salaries currently are very modest ($10,000 to $26,000), so Rodgers also teaches skating to youngsters. “It’s kids just trying to learn to skate or [in] their first year in hockey,” she said. “I [also] do some lessons with mites and 10U boys and girls.
“Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the money gets better and I can support myself” playing pro hockey, Rodgers said. “But if I can keep supporting myself with coaching on the side, I hope to keep playing forever.”
One day Rodgers hopes to be a pediatric nurse, but not before she completes her skating career. She said she has a lot of hockey left in her: “I have fun and love the game.” She also wants to be a part of helping the WNHL, now in its fourth season, become a solid domestic destination for current and future collegians to play.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.