EmBoldened

Blake Bolden Is Helping To Create A New Blueprint For Women And Diversity In Hockey
By: 
Jessi Pierce

Blake Bolden was usually the first player dressed and ready to hit the ice. In the locker room with her all-male teammates, a young Bolden would hustle to put on her shin, elbow and shoulder pads so she could ultimately hide behind her helmet.  

"Being a young girl, and also a black girl, I would try and get dressed so fast just so I could put my helmet on so no one would know my gender or race," she says. "I know a lot of girls have had that experience, and a lot of black people in hockey, too." 

Now, at 29, Bolden is diligently working to better the hockey experience for kids that continue to come after her; to be a role model and a pioneer in the world of hockey in every aspect she can be. 

 

Early Hurdles

Before there was Blake the player, there was Blake the hockey fan. While her dad worked security for the International Hockey League's Cleveland Lumberjacks, Bolden took advantage of the behind-the-scenes access into the hockey world, hanging out in the tunnel and interacting with the players on a nightly basis. 

"It only took one full season of me running around and watching from box seats before I turned to my dad and asked him if I could learn to play," the Euclid, Ohio, native recalls.  

The 6-year-old Bolden quickly learned that hockey had plenty of unique hurdles in the way of immediate success-namely: skating. 

 "I looked like a little Bambi out there," Bolden says with a laugh, referencing the wobbly legged Disney character. "I felt like, wow, I had no idea how challenging the sport was. I remember I was pushing around a chair with tennis balls at the bottom of them and slowly moving around cones, and just figuring it all out. It took me two full years to learn how to stop on my left side. It was definitely challenging."

She also learned how to navigate being a black female in a mostly white-male dominated sport. Early on in the house leagues, Bolden admits she faced little discrimination. But as she rose the ranks in competition-outshining many of her male counterparts-she began to feel the sneers and jeers from opposing teams' parents and players alike.

"People were cruel," says Bolden, who went from an in-house B team up to AAA hockey within two years. "I would beat their sons and they would stare me down in the lobby, or I would walk in and people would wonder what the heck I was even doing at a rink." 

Bolden leaned on her mom, who she describes as a "strong woman who entered rinks with a strong conviction" as well as her teammates and coaches.  

"Once they realized I could play, it seemed like I gained their respect," she says. "And to me, that was huge. I wanted that more than anything. From then on, I was just a part of the team and every one of the guys on the team from the coach down had my back.

"I remember being in front of the net and a kid cursing me out, calling me [a derogatory slur], saying something nasty toward me, and one of my other teammates immediately stepped in to defend me. It just felt really good." 

 

Breaking The Barrier

There are very few things Bolden has set her mind to that she hasn't accomplished or achieved. 

Division I college hockey? Done that by way of four years of Boston College, earning her way into the Eagles record books her junior season with 21 points - third-most ever by a BC defenseman and second most in Hockey East that year (2011-12)-and the letter 'C' she wore during her senior year.

Signing a pro hockey contract? Did that as well; first for one season with the Canadian Women's Hockey League (Boston Blades) then three years with the National Women's Hockey League (Boston Pride and Buffalo Beauts) where she was a three-time NWHL All-Star and the 2019 NWHL Defensive Player of the Year while claiming the league's fastest slapshot record (87 mph). 

What Bolden failed to realize in her NWHL hockey moment was the fact that, at age 25, she became the first black woman to play professional ice hockey. 

"I think I've always just been focused on what I was doing in that moment, but when you look back on it, you're like 'Wow, I'm the only up here right now' and I think that's tremendously important," admits Bolden, who helped the Pride clinch the inaugural Isobel Cup in 2016. 

"But I look at a lot of my peers, my teammates, the women who came before me, they've done a lot of the work in the trenches to get where we are today. I commend those people for helping me continue to pioneer a path."

Bolden's not done breaking ground yet. In January 2019 she began working as a full-time scout for the Los Angeles Kings, one of just a handful of female NHL scouts, a roster which includes U.S. Olympian Cammi Granato with the Seattle Kraken and Gabriella Switaj with the Anaheim Ducks.

"It's definitely been a whirlwind," says Bolden, who is based in San Diego and still plays hockey in the area. "I've had to learn a lot of the lingo, but for the most part I am doing what I love: watching and evaluating hockey. In addition to that, I get to align myself with some really amazing diversity and inclusion initiatives that the Kings have set forth. 

"L.A. is one of the most diverse cities in the world, so there are a lot of great plans ahead to start making this sport, especially here in L.A. equal for everyone in all neighborhoods. Breaking down those barriers in different communities. I'm really proud to be a part of that."  

 

A Role Model For Generations To Come

Meredith Lang is so grateful to Bolden for giving her own daughters, Aubrey (11) and Mia (9) a role model to look up to. 

"When they first learned about Blake and being the first black woman to play professional hockey, they were just smitten," explains Lang, whose daughters play in the Bloomington Youth Hockey Association in Minnesota. "Finally, they had someone who looked like them achieving hockey dreams. Immediately they were a part of Blake's biggest fan club."

Aubrey and Mia were able to meet Bolden when she came to Minnesota to face the local NWHL team. 

"Blake is my absolute favorite player because she has had to face a lot of adversity as a person of color playing hockey. It didn't stop her no matter how hard it was," Aubrey says. "Now I want to play hockey at Boston College, too!"

"I like cheering for Blake," adds her younger sister. "Because she looks like me, it was extra special rooting for her to do good." 

For Bolden, being that role model and inspiration to the next generation still hasn't entirely sunk in, but it's a role she embraces more and more each year-for hockey, and for the world as a whole. 

"I think the most telling quote is, 'If you can see it, you can be it.' For me, being in this role and feeling that responsibility is pretty intense at first, but it's evolved into accepting it and rising to the occasion," Bolden explains.

"I have tried so hard to be an open book and share my story and inspire the younger generation. If hockey is something a person of a different race never could have imagined, I want to be proof to not count it out as a sport, because we need more diversity.

"If we can do our part in our ecosystem the world will be a better place if everyone tries to make it a bit better in what they can do."

Jessi Pierce is a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn. 

 

Issue: 
2020-11

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