Why the Black Girl Hockey Club Wants NHL Fans to 'Get Uncomfortable'

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMarch 14, 2021

FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2020, file photo, fans pose below the NHL league logo at a display outside Falcon Stadium before an NHL Stadium Series outdoor hockey game between the Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche, at Air Force Academy, Colo. The uncertainty raised by coronavirus pandemic leads to experts providing a bleak short-term assessment on the NHL's financial bottom line, with some projecting revenues being cut by almost half. What's unclear is how large the impact might be until it can be determined when fans can resume attending games and if the league is able to complete this season. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
R . Renee Hess/Black Girl Hockey Club

The summer of 2020 was a cacophony of voices, privilege and fears. It was a summer of unrest that gave way to a fall of change and a winter of anxiety.

As sports returned and some of those voices were elevated, the voices of the Black community, as well as those supporting them and other marginalized groups, grew louder. Their voices were amplified by athletes, many of them playing in bubbles in what seemed like some strange, dystopian universe. Their messages were displayed on the backs of jerseys and in arenas, and those voices did not go away as the seasons concluded.

There were people worldwide who were horrified by what they were seeing in the United States. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake—Black people getting shot, Black people getting a knee to the neck, Black people getting killed or, in Blake's case, seriously injured.

They decided they couldn't stand by and watch what was unfolding without doing something.

But there were some who were ready for the moment, who had already been doing important work to combat similar issues and were ready to help others with the uncomfortable conversations. These are the women of the Black Girl Hockey Club. Women who went from being a group of fans to a powerful group of women helping to change the hockey culture for the better. To make it a more diverse, inclusive space. 

"We have to be louder," said Tunisha Singleton, Ph.D., a member of the club's board of directors. "We have to be louder than the toxicity is."

The Black Girl Hockey Club didn't set out to change the game. It started as a group of Black women who just wanted to watch hockey with each other. R. Renee Hess, an adjunct professor in Southern California, did some research about women in hockey through social media. She found that many Black women had little to no exposure to hockey at any level or they didn't feel comfortable going to games.

That was all it took to plan the first event. The Black Girl Hockey Club was born in 2018.

"As I kind of got more interested in attending games, I realized I didn't see a lot of Black folks at hockey games and I definitely didn't see a lot of Black women," Hess said. "Not only that, but my friends and my family members were like, 'Hockey? Black people don't really like hockey, Black people don't play hockey. Are there even any Black hockey players?'"

The club has enjoyed a quick ascent since holding its first event in its inaugural year. While some of it can probably be attributed to timing and the social unrest the country is currently experiencing, much of it can be credited to Hess, the founder, and the other members of the club. Fatou Bah, a volunteer who helps with fundraising and social media, said Hess is the perfect person to head up a club like this because, "She dreams so big."

"She's the perfect person to have started this," Bah said. "The way her mind works is incredible."

R. Renee Hess/Black Girl Hockey Club

The dreams are getting bigger for all involved. The women of the Black Girl Hockey Club have created a diverse community of hockey fans, players and personnel that keeps growing.

"When we talk about exploring anti-racism outside of hockey, the things we talk about is keeping your sponsors accountable, letting go of some of the bad negative energy and bringing in some of this positive or inclusive energy is ultimately what we want to see.

"And so for the Black Girl Hockey Club, I really envision a place that is not only a community and a safe space, but also a leader in growth and development of young Black women in hockey."


Strength in Numbers

Each fan has their own unique story of how they developed a love of the sport and grew attached to their favored teams. Sometimes they're born into fandom, with family members who follow certain teams. Other times, sports fandom grows from social events.

Hess found hockey while sitting in traffic in Pittsburgh.

The associate director of service learning at La Sierra University in Riverside, California, became a hockey fan while attending an academic conference. Traffic downtown was jammed with fans. While at dinner, she saw the game on television and was fascinated with the intensity of the way fans hung on every bounce of the puck. The atmosphere created by fans in black and yellow was intriguing. She went to her first game in January of 2016, watching the Anaheim Ducks down the Dallas Stars at Honda Center. And she was hooked.

"Seeing a live game is so intense," Hess said. "There is so much athleticism, it's so fast, the aesthetics of it are just so pleasing."

Live hockey is also what hooked Singleton, who went to a San Jose Sharks game while studying as an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz. Singleton played basketball growing up in Southern California, but she was always drawn to combat sports like wrestling and mixed martial arts, so there was a natural attraction to hockey when she first started watching.

It didn't take any of them long to discover that they stood out at hockey games.

The NHL has long lagged behind the other three North American professional sports leagues when it comes to diversity. Only 22 Black players have made appearances in the NHL this season. So if the ratio on the ice is overwhelmingly white, imagine how it looks in the stands.

They have all experienced harassment in some form.

Bah, a displaced Washington Capitals fan in New York, said one of the worst experiences she ever had as a sports fan came at Nassau Coliseum when the New York Islanders played what was expected to be one of their final games at the venue. Fans made fun of her hair. Her friend's car was keyed in the parking lot. Her group of friends were harassed to the point where they felt they needed to stay together at all times, even when using the bathrooms.

"They were incredibly hostile, racist, sexist, homophobic—it was a scary experience," Bah said. "There's really no other way to describe it. It was a very scary experience. I was petrified."

John Tavares scored in overtime, much to the relief of Bah and her Caps fan friends, who were forced to root for the other team for the sake of their own safety.

"I've never wanted my team to lose in the playoffs, but I was like, 'Thank God they won,'" she said. "I don't know what the (the fans) would have done if they lost."

The first official meetup for the Black Girl Hockey Club came late in 2018. Hess surveyed the NHL landscape and saw that the defending Stanley Cup champs Washington had two Black players in Devante Smith-Pelly and Madison Bowie, and two Black minority owners, Sheila Johnson and Earl Stafford. There was support for this event right away, including from the NHL, who got word of what the club's plans and helped facilitate a meet-and-greet with the team.

By Hess' estimate, there were 45 Black women at that first event, as well as their kids, family members and friends. The turnout made it clear that this was something that hockey desperately needed and something fans wanted. By the end of the night, Hess was not only planning for more outings but also organizing opportunities to influence change.

"I realized that this was something bigger and we could do something more than just go to games together," she said. "It was just kind of born out of a need to develop a community for Black fans and players and executives that really didn't exist before being able to bring all these people together to network and to get to know each other. It was really amazing. And it still continues to amaze me."

Black folks were in hockey, and Hess was going to find more and make sure they stayed.


Getting Uncomfortable

The Black Girl Hockey Club picked up tremendous steam after that first meetup, and several more were planned throughout the country. They engaged with players, coaches and executives.

Defenseman P.K. Subban posed for photos with the club during their outing in New Jersey last winter, when the club held an event with the Devils. Forward Wayne Simmonds told the group he would love for his young daughter, Kori, to be in the club.

"I was like, 'Absolutely! Let's get this toddler an email address,'" Bah said.

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire sports world, but it didn't shut down the Black Girl Hockey Club. In fact, it galvanized them.

The thing you have to know about these three women and the other women of the Black Girl Hockey Club is that they are extremely accomplished and intelligent. Bah is an event marketer. Singleton's Ph.D. is in media psychology. Hess and treasurer DeAnne Knipschild also work in academia. Another member, Ayodele Odubela, is a data scientist.

If you want to get a message out there to the masses, this is a group of women who know how to craft them and communicate them effectively.

Hess put out what she likes to call her "manifesto" over the summer in response to the Black Lives Matter protests. The club then pivoted from meetups to advocacy, launching a committee and laying the framework for growth. The committee came up with the "Get Uncomfortable Campaign," which became the signature tenet of the Black Girl Hockey Club.

"We're really trying to encourage everyone in and out of hockey from media to players, marketing, journalists, coaches, staff, brands and any affiliates of the sport to pledge that they will disrupt racism and that they will work with us in trying to disrupt racism on and off the ice," Singleton said. "There are three initiatives that we have with that. I helped design them as pillars to really help illustrate the range of work that needs to happen. Those three pillars are employ, educate, and encourage."

Hess and Singleton estimate the number of people to have taken the pledge is just under 5,000. One of those people is the legendary Canadian broadcaster Ron MacLean. Another is Kurtis Gabriel, a journeyman enforcer now with the San Jose Sharks.

Brandon Magnus/NHLI via Getty Images

The forward got involved with LGBTQ activism after the Devils hosted Pride Night in 2019. Members of the team wrapped their sticks in the rainbow tape for warm-ups but opted for regular tape during the game. Gabriel thought it might be meaningful to leave the Pride Tape on his stick for the game. He scored the game-winning goal and received an outpouring of support on social media, inspiring him to keep using the Pride Tape.

The 27-year-old was inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests to delve into another area of advocacy last summer. He learned about the Black Girl Hockey Club through social media and wasted no time taking the pledge.

"I'm disappointed with myself, and I say this every time we talk about this, but when Colin Kaepernick took a knee, I kind of sat back and was like, 'Oh, great for him, I support it. That's awesome.' But didn't say anything," Gabriel said. "I didn't put myself out there and show that support. I feel like I was on the wrong side of history there. So sitting at home and quarantine, and George Floyd gets murdered, Ahmaud Arbery happens, and I'm just sitting there at home doing home workouts.

"I'm like, 'I've just had enough of this. I want to help out with this issue.'"

This is not a one-time pledge. Getting uncomfortable means continuing to work through feelings and lessons about equality and how to implement it. The discourse and the dialogue don't end with a signature, and the members of the club will continually check in with participants.

It's what Gabriel appreciates most about the Get Uncomfortable Campaign, because he understands that the work never ends for Black people and that acceptance will not come without difficult lessons.

"That's their skin, it's their sexuality, and they have to live it every second of the day," Gabriel said. "So it just boggles my mind how exhausting it must be to walk in their shoes."

Gabriel continues to use the Pride Tape on his sticks. He recently collaborated with Peter Gubernator of Gubi Customs to create skates to auction off for charity. One skate has a rainbow flag on the heel with "Love is love" written on the boot, the other features a Black Lives Matter logo with the words "hope," "empathy" and "change."

Gabriel is working on coordinating an Instagram Live stream with Hess to discuss what he's learned about the Get Uncomfortable Campaign and the work that comes next.

"I don't think these issues will ever be totally gone," he said. "But we're just trying to move the needle more towards love and away from hate."


Shifting the Culture

So, what exactly does come next?

The Black Girl Hockey Club has become a full-fledged donation-based non-profit organization. Donations fund their various initiatives, including scholarships that help girls get into hockey and be able to continue playing by reducing the cost barriers. There are four scholarships that cover the costs of entire seasons, tournament fees, equipment and a summer hockey program.

"If I had this as a kid, I might have been more inclined to play this instead of what I thought I had to play because I was Black," Singleton said.

Singleton envisions a global future for the club. She wants to create a "catalogue of event marketing and digital events" with the goal of increasing engagement with fans and allies all over the world.

Kim Davis, the NHL's executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, has consulted with Hess about various diversity endeavors, including Hockey is for Everyone. But Hess feels it's important to remain autonomous in order to hold the league, teams and even brands accountable.

The connection to the NHL is complicated for everyone. They love the sport, but its top professional league is grappling with its own racial reckoning. Which is probably why it's difficult for some members of the Black Girl Hockey Club to answer the question of whether or not the NHL is doing enough to promote diversity.

Players had to take matters into their own hands last summer when the league opted not to postpone Stanley Cup playoff games in the bubble in the aftermath of the shooting of 29-year-old Black man Jacob Blake by Wisconsin Police. Video showed Blake being shot seven times, three of them in the back. It was confirmed in January that Officer Rusten Sheskey would not be charged for the shooting.

In the NBA, Milwaukee Bucks players boycotted Game 5 of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic, which led to further schedule changes. Players used the time to ask team governors for actionable change, like using their arenas as polling places in the 2020 election. Major League Baseball, the WNBA and other leagues postponed games.

But the NHL offered nothing more than a "moment of reflection" until members of the Vegas Golden Knights and the Vancouver Canucks requested a postponement of the two playoff games scheduled for Aug. 26.

Bah thinks the NHL could have done more but still acknowledged the gravity of the moment.

"I hate to say that these are grown men so they can do whatever they want, so if they wanted to speak against police brutality and things like that, they could. But those could be touchy subjects with the NHL because of some of their sponsors, but they did allow [the postponements]," Bah said. "So I appreciate that because you have to start somewhere."

Hess has a different take, choosing to focus on progress, like the efforts put forth by individual teams.

"It's really not up to me to say if it's good enough," she said. "What I would say is that (the NHL) has a lot of amazing people who are pushing them in the right direction."

There are many people who see sports as nothing but a distraction. They see players kneeling and tell them to shut up and skate. They see politics filtering into a world they perceive as separate from society. But the days of sticking to sports are over. Maybe we never really stuck to them to begin with. Sports and society are intrinsically linked.

So to those who feel it necessary to use their voices to express displeasure in issues of race, gender and other social issues being addressed in sports, and for those who feel the need to tell Black women that they don't belong at the hockey rink, the Black Girl Hockey Club says this: They hear you, but they will be louder in demands for equality.

"This is a spot, an organization that gives voiceless fans, media folk, players, and executives a unified voice under the umbrella of the Black Girl Hockey Club," Hess said. "It's hard to ignore when we're so loud."


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