Women’s Hockey Star Blake Bolden Is Blazing A New Trail As the NHL’s First Black Female Scout
When Blake Bolden talks about her San Diego backyard garden, you can hear the same passion and mindfulness that motivated her to become both a pioneering women’s hockey star and the NHL’s first African-American female scout.
“My summer crop had tons of tomatoes, squash, and peppers, just beautiful things,” said the 29-year-old defender from Euclid, Ohio. “Now I’m transitioning over to my winter crop, even though it’s still really hot here! With all of this craziness, it’s nice to be on pause for a little bit and think about the things you’re grateful for.”
That’s undeniable. The disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic hit the hockey calendar harder than Bolden’s winning 87-mile-per-hour slap shot in the 2017 National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) All-Star Weekend hardest shot competition.
Ups and Downs in 2020
After the Los Angeles Kings made history by hiring Bolden in February, she naturally expected more than a month to cultivate her scouting skills at American Hockey League (AHL) games. Yet this Boston College graduate made the most of her opportunity before the AHL season shut down on March 12.
“Because I live in San Diego and Pechanga Arena is literally 10 minutes from my house, I frequented it a lot,” Bolden said. “I’ve been to San Jose, Bakersfield, and Ontario. I haven’t gotten out to Colorado or Arizona yet, but I’ll work full-time this year as a Kings scout. Obviously, with the uncertainty of the future, we’re going to map out what that looks like.”
This summer, while Bolden often drove to the Coronado Dog Beach with her boyfriend, strength and conditioning coach Miles Levine, and their 6-year-old Golden Labradoodles, Nala and Shilo, it wasn’t the only route she took.
She also hosted twice-weekly Zoom fitness classes for hockey-loving girls aged 8-12 and 13-17 across America, with music including old-school Jock Jams and Jennifer Lopez.
“I work with the San Diego Junior Gulls girls’ hockey program, and because we haven’t been able to hit the ice, it’s been challenging to interact with them and even see their faces,” she said. “We wanted to keep them active, so we started the Zoom workouts and then opened it up to everyone, because it was a great way to hold each other accountable and get a good body weight sweat in too.”
As a visible minority in North America’s whitest major sport, Bolden has held herself to a high standard since Day One, and her efforts have borne fruit.
A Girl With Big Dreams
As a little girl, Bolden was into ballet, gymnastics, and karate – until she started playing hockey at age seven. Her mother LaTanya dated a man named Leslie Dean, who worked security for the Cleveland Lumberjacks, and Bolden fell in love with hockey’s speed and intensity.
Lumberjacks sniper Jock Callander was one of Bolden’s early idols, along with Brendan Shanahan of the Detroit Red Wings. On the female side, she admired 1998 U.S. Olympic champion Angela Ruggiero. Bolden hadn’t yet heard of Canada’s Angela James, the Black power forward dubbed the “Wayne Gretzky of women’s hockey.”
A female French-Canadian goalie who appeared in an historic 1992 Tampa Bay Lightning game still holds a special place in Bolden’s heart.
“Manon Rheaume was big for me as the first woman to play in the NHL,” Bolden said. “I played on her team that she hand-selected for the 2002 pee-wee tournament in Quebec City, where I have such great memories. That was the tipping point for me wanting to play hockey at a higher level.”
Kendall Coyne Schofield, the current captain of the U.S. women’s national team, joined Bolden on Rheaume’s Mission Betty, a groundbreaking, all-female roster of elite 11- and 12-year-olds competing against boys.
“As someone who is fast myself, speed always recognizes speed,” Coyne Schofield said. “Even though Blake was a defender, she could get the puck, rush up the ice, skate around everyone, and put the puck in the net. And I remember how hard she could shoot. At such a young age, it really stood out.”
A Taste of International Hockey
Early on, USA Hockey spotted the teenaged Bolden’s potential, inviting her to training camps. Bolden and Coyne Schofield joined budding stars like Brianna Decker and Amanda Kessel at the first two International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Under-18 Women’s World Championships, and they won gold medals in Canada (2008) and Germany (2009).
However, 2009 was the last time Bolden would officially represent her country. Although she shone at Boston College en route to her psychology and human development degree, including captaining the women’s team as a senior, she surprisingly never got to wear U.S. colors at the annual Women’s World Championship.
At age 22, her biggest heartbreak was not making the U.S. Olympic team, which would settle for silver in Sochi, Russia in 2014.
“When I had this obsession with being on the Olympic team and I didn’t achieve that goal, I think I was pretty bummed,” Bolden said. “I didn’t really know why I was playing hockey anymore until I saw Black families coming out specifically to see me.”
From Disappointment to Determination
Those Black families were supporters of the Boston Blades, a Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) franchise that drafted Bolden fifth overall in 2013.
“I had an ‘Aha!’ moment,” she said. “If kids see something attainable, it gives them the confidence to say, ‘Oh, I want to be like Blake, or Serena Williams, or Misty Copeland.’ My whole idea of why I play hockey changed. It wasn’t just for fun anymore. It was for a bigger purpose.”
The 5-foot-6, 141-pound star gained another fan when she met Levine at Boston’s InnerCity Weightlifting, where the pair helped at-risk youth pursue the goal of becoming personal trainers.
With renewed confidence, Bolden blossomed. She won the 2015 CWHL championship with the Blades. When the rival National Women’s Hockey League debuted the following season, Bolden made more history. She earned the inaugural 2016 Isobel Cup with the Boston Pride and became the first African-American woman to earn a pro hockey paycheck. (The now-defunct CWHL did not pay players until 2017.)
After broadening her horizons in 2017-18 with Switzerland’s HC Lugano, Bolden played one more NWHL season with the Buffalo Beauts and captured the 2019 Defender of the Year Award. Afterwards, she joined the new Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) to campaign for improved working conditions.
Living the NHL Dream
Bolden is someone who recognizes opportunities. During Black History Month in February, she appreciated the chance to travel around with 84-year-old fellow San Diego resident Willie O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first Black player in 1958 with Boston.
She relishes every phone call from legendary Kings executives like president Luc Robitaille and GM Rob Blake. The club has also named her a diversity and inclusion specialist. “I feel like I can make a really big impact with the Kings,” she said.
Today, there’s a growing consensus about the importance of having more Black women in both women’s hockey and the NHL.
“I think we can do a better job of making sure everyone knows that hockey is for them,” said Coyne Schofield. “Making sure that it’s accessible, introduced to all cultures and communities, and that it’s welcoming. When a BIPOC player comes into the rink, they should feel just as welcome as a non-BIPOC player.”
While Bolden is eager to welcome the new NHL season, she’s also launched Eat in Color, her plant-based cookbook ($5.99). Tasty recipes include butternut squash savory tacos and chili stuffed sweet potato.
“I just made something for everyone to enjoy,” Bolden said. “It’s about being as creative as you can, waking up and having a task to do, finishing it and feeling accomplished.”