How The Black Girl Hockey Club Went from Social Group to Agents of Change
Black Girl Hockey Club founder Renee Hess is somewhat of an accidental hockey fan. The California native was on a work trip when the sport first caught her attention.
“I was actually at an academic conference in Pittsburgh in 2011 and coming back from dinner we ran into a hockey game,” she recalled. “It was on the TV where we were having dinner and on the way back we got stuck in hockey traffic going back to our hotel. There was this ocean of people wearing black and yellow and I remember wondering, ‘how do people get into sports?’”
A self-professed ‘fan of being a fan’ and intrigued by the fervor, Hess started to do her homework — reading about hockey, looking up definitions of terms, and listening to games rather than watching them to absorb the excitement.
Her first live game was a contest between the National Hockey League’s Anaheim Ducks and the Dallas Stars, which she attended with her husband and brother-in-law. Hess was enamored by the athleticism of the players, the hand-eye coordination, and the intense environment. “I always tell people, go to an actual game and you will be hooked because it is just so exciting to watch.” But her enthusiasm was somewhat tempered by the lack of faces that looked like hers in the arena.
“It was unnerving,” she lamented. “My husband is white and so I felt like I was the only Black person in the entire place. And as time went by I would go to games and feel that same way and look around and not see any Black people, especially Black women. I will see a Black guy there every once in a while but I rarely ever saw any Black women and never two Black women together. It became my mission to go to a hockey game with Black women.”
Hess is the associate director of community engagement and an adjunct professor at La Sierra University, a small parochial school in Riverside, California. It was only natural that she decided to build a space for Black women in hockey.
She put her expertise in community organizing towards finding a tribe on social media and suggested a meet-up. The Black Girl Hockey Club was officially born at a Washington Capitals game on December 15th, 2018.
“We gathered 45 Black women, their kids, their mothers; we even had a grandmother there. And it was pretty amazing because we had women who were hockey moms from Buffalo, New York. Their kids played hockey in the same city and they didn't even know each other. A lot of times we find Black women involved in hockey feel like they're the only ones, their kids are the only Black kids on their team or they are the only Black women that play in their beer league. So the cool thing about Black Girl Hockey Club is that together we’ve gathered this community.”
A group of Black women in a predominantly white space like an ice hockey arena was a novel sight. The BGHC received a lot of press and support from the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone diversity initiative. But Hess realized the power they collectively held and the potential to do more than just attend games.
Their first order of business was launching a scholarship fund for female Black hockey players ages nine through 18. Hockey is an expensive sport and historically the financial barriers have prevented Black kids from being able to have access to the sport. The goal is to distribute $40,000 per year to 16 girls. The club doesn’t receive financial assistance or grants from the NHL, corporate donors or any large hockey organizations. Instead, the scholarships are largely funded through donations from the general public.
Over the summer, their first scholarship was awarded to a young goalie named Talia Rose from Ontario, Canada. But the BGHC is all about inclusion. When a young defenseman named Phoenix needed help to attend Gretzky Camp, they put out the call and the community responded. In less than an hour, Phoenix’s dream was realized.
According to Hess, the Black Girl Hockey Club has two objectives. “The first is to diversify hockey to make it more welcoming to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) fans,” she explained. “So that becomes looking at the financial barriers, that is encouraging black girls to get involved in hockey, building a community for BIPOC fans and also diversifying who is working in the front offices and behind the benches. Not just on the ice, but all levels of hockey.” She added, “But also a big part of what Black Girl Hockey Club stands for is we have this desire to have the hockey community make a genuine commitment towards addressing racism and police violence in the community.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May, several athletes and teams across multiple sports rallied against racism and the oppression of Black people. Many took a knee to protest social injustice. Then came the shooting of Jacob Blake, another Black man, this time in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In an unprecedented display of unity, athletes in the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer staged a labor strike. The NHL remained muted much to the dismay of Hess.
“I won't mince words. It's difficult to be a fan of a sport that time and time again seems to disregard their Black and Indigenous hockey fans.” Those fans took matters into their own hands. One fan planted the seed by suggesting that if the players weren’t going to take a knee then they should do it themselves. The BGHC agreed. This spawned the hashtag #Kneel4Hockey. Within 24-hours Hess’ entire Twitter feed was flooded with hockey fans taking a knee and the hashtag was trending.
In early September, the NHL announced a series of initiatives to combat racism and make the league more inclusive. This includes anti-racism education for league employees, mandatory inclusion and diversity training for all NHL Players, and a grassroots hockey development program providing mentorship and skill development for BIPOC boys and girls in Toronto.
“We want them to make a tangible shift in culture and in policies,” said Hess. “Because we can pay lip service to how bad racism is but there needs to be a tangible policy shift and that includes financial policies, hiring policies, and how the hockey leagues interact with the police. I think that those changes have to happen and I think that’s our next step as an organization. That’s what we want to continue pushing for. This is the perfect time to do it.”
On September 23rd, the group launched the Get Uncomfortable Campaign with the primary objective of meaningfully contributing “to the movement against discrimination and oppression of BIPOC communities in society.” The Seattle Kraken, the league’s newest franchise, were the first NHL team to take the pledge. They were recently joined by the Washington Capitals. To date over 3,700 people have registered. The Black Girl Hockey Club has fully evolved from a fan club that gets together to cheer for their favorite team to an organization committed to anti-racism work in hockey.
“Building the community in hockey only makes our voices stronger,” says Hess. “We can get together and voice our concerns, voice our joys, voice our fears. We're able to make an impact on the sport.”