Boosting hockey diversity from the grassroots

Courtesy of Cyndi Nightengale Photography (l-r) Coaches Kensie Malone, Tina Kampa, Nikki Nightengale and Maia Martinez

On an unnaturally sweltering August evening, being inside an ice arena watching hockey brought a temporary reprieve from the heat. Watching hockey is old hat for this longtime reporter, but watching two teams earlier this month at the Bloomington Ice Garden, or the BIG, composed entirely of young girls of color and coached by women of color was a refreshing first.

Minnesota Unbounded is a result of a merger of sorts, as two pairs of sisters of color—the Hockey Ninas they call themselves—joined other girls of color to create two all-POC youth hockey teams. According to Meredith Lang, one of the parents and a major push behind MU, told us that 31 players representing 14 local communities or associations in the metro area make up the Under-10 and Under-12 squads.

They competed in the 2021 Os Shootout at the BIG August 12-15 against more experienced teams. The U-10 finished 0-4 but the U-12 went 2-2.

But MU’s impact was much greater than the wins and losses that weekend.

“We picked our name Minnesota Unbounded for a reason,” explained Maia Martinez, a Latina hockey player and incoming senior at Union (NY) College. She’s from Maple Grove, a two-time all-academic player who’s studying political science with a double minor in psychology and law. She is one of several MU coaches.

“It means limitless,” Martinez explained, “and we want these girls to know that they can do anything they set their mind to, regardless of what color their skin is, that they can do just as much as anyone else and more than just reach their dreams.”

Tina Kampa and Lang jointly came up with the MU idea: “I didn’t have many people growing up that looked like me that I got to play with and/or play against,” recalled Kampa, a 2021 Minnesota Whitecaps draftee and former Bemidji State hockey player. Born in Colombia and growing up in Maple Grove, Kampa made the WCHA All-Academic Team before graduating with a psychology degree and earning a coaching certificate.

Courtesy of Cyndi Nightengale Photography Coaching the U-10 team

“We were able to put together two teams that are obviously young [to the game of hockey], and they’re just incredible. It’s been so much fun,” admitted Kampa.

Nikki Nightengale played college hockey at Augsburg—the Bloomington native was featured in the MSR in November 2019 and was the first Auggie player to receive consecutive All-American honors. “Honestly,” she said, “I never thought that there would be this many to create a team like this.

“I barely played with girls that looked like me either on my team or against me. I just think it’s the coolest thing to have this many girls.” Nightengale’s day job is as a phlebotomist, and her free time she’s the assistant girls’ varsity hockey coach at Bloomington Jefferson.

“I’m super happy to be part of something like this,” added Minneapolis native Kensie Malone, who will begin her second year at Augsburg next month.

Martinez, Kampa, Nightengale and Malone guided the two MU teams from the bench at the Bloomington tourney. Jen Costa, who will be a graduate transfer at Maine University this fall after playing at Dartmouth, and Nina Rodgers, a three-year veteran in the NWHL who played hockey at Boston University—both Black women—are the other coaches of color.

MU has been featured in a recent article and has gained a ton of followers on social media. “Seeing all those people reach out to us, rooting for our teams, is just unbelievable,” said Nightengale.

Hockey still is a predominately White sport. Sometimes a player who’s not White is greeted with jeers and racial insults from the stands, and sometimes from their teammates as well. Minnesota Unbounded is a small but important step in improving the sport’s diversity at its beginning levels.

“I just want them to feel comfortable in the arena and to know that they are welcome there as well,” said Malone.

“I believe that everybody should have a positive experience in the game of hockey,” said Kampa. “I want [the players] to feel empowered to be proud of who they are and not be afraid to walk into an arena and play hockey.”