“Blake is one of the best ambassadors that this game has ever seen,” said Coyne Schofield. “Not only is she making history as the first black woman to scout in the NHL, she puts the same energy, time and commitment into building the grassroots level of the game as she does with the Kings. She walks the walk. During COVID-19, while hockey has been paused for so many players outside the NHL, she has continuously hosted weekly Zoom workouts for girls all over the country to join. You need to see it to be it, and Blake is the woman that young hockey players need to be seeing.”
The swift-skating, hard-shooting blueliner, who grew up near Cleveland, Ohio, had childhood hockey heroes like IHL ace Jock Callander of the Cleveland Lumberjacks, two-time Stanley Cup champion Brett Hull, and 1998 U.S. Olympic gold medalist Angela Ruggiero.
Bolden went on to shine at many levels. She capped a four-year run at Boston College as the captain of the Eagles – also featuring Alex Carpenter, Haley Skarupa, and Emily Matheson (nee Pfalzer) – in her senior year. Four more years of elite club hockey in Beantown saw Bolden capture a 2015 Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) title with the Boston Blades and a 2016 National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) title with the Boston Pride. She also spent 2017/2018 with Switzerland’s HC Lugano.
Today, this resident of San Diego, California wears multiple hats. Bolden is scouting AHL talent for the Kings, serving as a diversity and inclusion specialist with the club, coaching with the San Diego Junior Gulls girls hockey program, and maintaining her membership in the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), whose aim is to build a sustainable league for the world’s best players.
IIHF.com caught up with Bolden recently.
Down there in Southern California, which other women’s hockey players are you able to see or connect with semi-regularly?
In San Diego, there’s Keely Moy, who plays for Harvard. A lot of Colgate University girls out of the Escondido area, which is 40 minutes north. Professionally, not too many. A lot of roller hockey girls.
During this pandemic, what have been some of your favourite ways to relax and stay positive?
I would just say getting outside. My boyfriend, my two Golden Labradoodles, and I will hop in the car and go to the Coronado dog beach. We’ve been trying to get out in nature, go on some hikes. We’ve done camping trips where we were out for a few days and we’ve got a propane tank and we’re cooking. Just having fun!
Miles has been training me since I was 23 years old. We have a really great relationship. We actually met at a place called Inner City Weightlifting in Boston, a non-profit organization that aimed to help a lot of gang-related individuals, teaching them how to become personal trainers. I was a student services manager there and he volunteered. We just bonded over strength and conditioning. As an athlete, he likes to push me as hard as I can go. It’s fun to push each other at home in this new at-home gym that we created together.
Your slap shot is your calling card. You won the hardest shot competition with an 87 mph (140 km/h) blast at the 2017 NWHL All-Star Game skills competition in Pittsburgh. What tips do you give girls looking to improve their shots?
My key tips are to really use your hips. My shot is hard, but it’s quick and explosive. I’m not the biggest person, but I use literally every single muscle in my being to let that shot go. So be quick with the hips, use that glute for that power and explosive hip-opening turn, and as always, just transfer your weight. A lot of the time, girls feel uncomfortable transitioning their weight with the follow-through. I always try to overemphasize everything, so you can find what your groove is.
My shot isn’t going to work for every single person. You’ve just got to find your sweet spot on your stick and find what works best for you. Getting those hips open, quick release, that’s probably key.
So far, what makes you most proud about the path you’re forging as an NHL scout?
I’m just really proud of being part of a prestigious franchise like the Los Angeles Kings. I remember when I announced it on my Instagram, my caption was something very cavalier. And my boyfriend was like, “Blake! This is a huge deal.” And I had to sit back and really think about it. I was like, “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe I’m making it seem like this is just a normal thing. This is absolutely huge.”
I’ve been saying this since Day One: they’ve been such a progressive organization. They were looking for something different and they found that in me. And the support that I’ve gotten since being there has been...oh man, it’s just been so great.
The leadership there is so helpful for me, because I’m super-fresh and super-new. But I have mentors within the field already, and it just makes me feel confident to do the best work that I can in terms of learning about all of these players and drawing up reports that Blakey [Kings GM Rob Blake] can effectively look at and take notes on for future prospects. It’s really cool.
Nelson Emerson, our player personnel director. Kelly Cheeseman, our COO from the Kings organization and AEG. Luc Robitaille, who is the president, will give me calls just to check in and see how I’m doing. We’ve got Matt Greene, who just finished his NHL career in 2017 and won two Stanley Cups with the Kings. Scouts like Jason Supryka and Eric Weissman. Just everybody on staff has been like, “Hey, you good? You good?” [laughs] Also, working as a growth and inclusion specialist on the other side, there’s Jennifer Pope, our vice-president of community relations. Everybody has a hand in the pot. It’s been a nice integration.
When I initially started with the Kings, Luc and Kelly Cheeseman were really excited about what I wanted to bring besides scouting. They knew I was passionate about diversifying this sport, and we also collaborated in an understanding that Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the world and definitely in this country. So we really wanted our fan base and youth hockey players to reflect that.
Right now, we’ve launched an inclusion initiative within the Kings organization that focuses on internal inclusivity, hiring 5 percent diversity over the next five years. We also want to see that increase in the vendors and buyers from which we’re purchasing goods, whether that’s marketing materials or products we’re selling in the Staples Center. We’re looking at mentorships from different universities within Los Angeles. Our big announcement in July was The Alliance, which has us partnering with all 11 Los Angeles-based pro sports teams to level the playing field and make sports accessible to young players of colour. That’s really exciting.
So that’s what we’re doing right now, and it seems like a mouthful. It’s a lot, and it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. But I look forward to seeing the change within the course of my career with the Los Angeles Kings.
Talk about your relationship with Renee Hess, the founder of Black Girl Hockey Club, which was featured in the New York Times in September.
It’s just one of those serendipitous situations where Renee lives in Riverside and she was down for Comic-Con when she was first starting Black Girl Hockey Club. She reached out to me. We sat down for coffee and I met her daughter. We just hung out for a bit. I really vibed with her. She’s such a great spirit and really, really is passionate about hockey, which is amazing, because you go to these NHL games and you don’t usually see black women specifically engaged in watching hockey. So what she has created is just so helpful.
She keeps everyone honest in hockey and is a nice sounding board to bump ideas off. But she’s blazing her own path. I’m really proud to have known her way back when and to see how she’s grown. Now she has charitable sponsorships for young players of colour that want to play hockey. This is important work. We’re all trying to do our part in our ecosystem, and she’s definitely doing hers.
I feel like I’m obsessed with Willie because I played in Boston, like he did, and now I live in San Diego, as he does. [laughs] It’s like I’ve just followed him around. Willie is such a privilege to spend time with. We usually spend a lot of time together during Black History Month in February. We drop pucks together and travel and meet up with the mobile Black History Truck. It’s just so fun. In February this year, right before everything happened, we had a ball. We were playing street hockey and he’s 86 years old, but he has so much energy and love for the game.
Every time he tells his story, especially about him being blind [in one eye] and still having the courage and strength to play hockey, which was obviously a white-dominated sport back then and things were a lot harder...it’s just so inspirational. Any time I get to be in his presence, it’s like I’m an open book, a sponge. To even be named next to him on occasion is an honour.
The NHL recently named you to its 15-member Player Inclusion Committee, which also features names like Anson Carter, P.K. Subban, Julie Chu, and Sarah Nurse. What makes you optimistic about the NHL’s long-term commitment to the anti-racism movement?
One thing that makes me optimistic is that I know [NHL executive vice-president of social impact] Kim Davis personally. She started her NHL journey years ago. When she first started, she reached out to the black people in the hockey community, and we have all been connected because of her. I know that she is very intelligent and such a strong figure in the hockey world. I feel comfortable because I know who she is personally. I can text her and say: “Hey, what do you think about this?” I feel as though she truly has our back as black people in the hockey space.
With these committees, it’s just a step toward having a conversation. And she’s the one really holding the NHL accountable, too. So I think it’s exciting. Hopefully while I’m on this panel, we can come up with great things to push the needle a little bit further. But especially with the Black Lives Matter movement and the NHL playoffs, you’ve seen how things are changing. People are using their platforms and everyone is seemingly becoming aware. It’s no longer something where we can pretend it isn’t happening anymore. So that’s a start.
One was paid and one wasn’t. [laughs] Simply put! But my first year playing in the CWHL was exciting. I was drafted in the first round, fifth overall, by the Boston Blades in 2013. I didn’t know what to expect because I had recently graduated from Boston College and I was working a full-time job in Boston. It was really challenging. I mean, we went on bus trips from Boston to Toronto that would take 10 hours. We’d do that drive – that long, long, drive – and then get back at 2 or 3 in the morning and then have to go to work the next day. So that was really challenging, but I won a Clarkson Cup in my second season.
Then in my third pro season, the NWHL was announced and there was an opportunity to play and get compensation. So that seemed like an easy choice in 2015. From there, it was like, “How do we make this league grow? How do we make it sustainable?” After my year in Switzerland, I came back and played for the Buffalo Beauts in 2018-19, which was amazing. I got to work with the Pegula family, who treated us as if we were professional athletes on the Buffalo Sabres. We had all the resources – everything that we could have needed and wanted. And that’s how women should be treated as professional athletes.
And now, I’m a member of the PWHPA. So there’s been a lot of moving and shaking over the last five or six years!
In 2015, TheColorofHockey.com reported that you had your first Boston Pride paycheck framed and hanging on your wall. Is that still the case?
[laughs] I have it. I don’t have it framed on my wall. But I have it in a book or something. I should probably make sure I still know where that is. That first NWHL check, I remember taking a picture and sending to my family. It wasn’t much, but it was something. [laughs]
You’ve been candid in the past about how your toughest obstacle to overcome was not being named to the Olympic team. Did you aspire to be in the mix primarily for Sochi, PyeongChang, or both?
I would say realistically Sochi. I had just graduated from college and I was at the height of my career, I guess. I was very successful and very talented. I can’t say “was,” because I think I still am! [laughs] It just seemed like the trajectory of what was next, just having been a part of all those festivals and camps and training for years, since I was 16 years old, training with the U18’s, the first U18 team ever.
One quirky point that jumped out from the 2009 U18 team’s statistics was that both you and Megan Bozek finished with a goal and five assists. You’re both strong, mobile defenders with game-changing slap shots. She wasn’t named to the PyeongChang team, but obviously has had other opportunities to win gold medals. Not to take anything away from Megan’s accomplishments, because they stand on their own merits, but considering some of these parallels, how surprised are you that you haven’t had more chances to represent your country?
It’s interesting you say that. Megan and I have known each other since we were probably 11 or 12 years old. She was on Team Illinois when we were both playing boys’ AAA when we were younger. She was the other girl in the league, and it was just her and me. So we were always compared to each other, I guess, since that age. There were always situations where either she would go or I would go. [laughs] Basically in short, and maybe because we’re similar. But I think that we’re different, because I’m me and she is her. She’s an incredible hockey player and also a friend of mine. Yeah, I guess I don’t really have much to say about that. It’s just, you don’t really know.
Assuming the 2022 Olympics proceed on schedule, you’ll be 30 when the first puck drops in Beijing. Under the right circumstances, have you left the door open for one more shot at the Olympics?
[laughs] No, I haven’t left the door open. I think, moving in this direction with my career...I played hockey for so long. Seven professional seasons. And then what? Now I have the Los Angeles Kings, where I feel like I can make a really big impact . Working with the NHL, there’s just so many things I can do outside hockey, but obviously still in the hockey space, without playing. I’m not sure that I’m ready to say the word “retirement,” because you never know what will happen. But I’m definitely not hoping for anything right now.
It’s Switzerland, so it’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world! I think I went over there because I was unhappy with the NWHL, point blank. I was unhappy that my salary had been cut in half [in November 2016]. I was unhappy that I was living in Boston and I’d quit my job and I felt like I’d been in Boston for such a long time. I didn’t really know what to do next. I was kind of burned out with work.
So I needed a change. And honestly, I was looking at WHLProfile.com, speaking to their recruiters and people who connect you with people overseas. I was like, “Next year, I’m going overseas.” I was actually Googling towns and cities and ran across Lugano. I saw some photos and I said: “I don’t care what the hockey’s like there! I’m going!” [laughs] Luckily, the hockey was fun. It was great. I had a very confidence-boosting season with 16 goals and 11 assists in 20 games. It was before PyeongChang, so I was playing basically against Team Switzerland in Zurich [ZSC Lions], which was really fun and exciting competition.
Europe is amazing. I went to Spain, France, and Italy, and my boyfriend came to spend a few days with me. Europe is so small and you can get around so quickly with a flight or train ride. It was just a really, really wonderful experience. And I have friends that I still talk to from HC Lugano. Even the manager still reaches out to me. One of my closest friends ever is Nicole Bullo, who is a four-time Olympian with Team Switzerland. She’s visited me here in San Diego.
Your old teammate Rachel Llanes decided to make the jump to the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays in China that season and has had great success, especially last year alongside Alex Carpenter. Did you ever consider joining them over there?
Oh yeah! That was kind of the other side of the coin: “Am I going to go to Switzerland or am I going to go to China?” In my head, I was like, “What will make me more uncomfortable? I can be in a place where I don’t know the language, where I’m by myself, where I’m forced to integrate into a world where I have no idea what I’m walking into. Or, I can go play in China with all my American friends and feel like I’m in college again.” And I chose, to me, what seemed to be a little more challenging and also what I needed at that time in my life. [laughs]
That’s interesting, because for many Americans, living in China might represent more culture shock than living in Switzerland.
Yeah, I think culture shock as far as food! But I didn’t have friends per se [in Switzerland]. I didn’t know the language. For me, going over to China with my best friends didn’t seem like something that would be challenging to me.
Oh, I think that’s definitely going to happen. If you were to really ask me what I want, I would love for women’s hockey to put the pieces together and not be divided. Figure out a common ground, come together, and make the best possible product. Get the support that we need from the NHL and other wealthy people that believe in women’s hockey.
When you see the product on the ice, you’re like, “Holy cow! These girls are so talented.” People only really see them every four years. So I also thought it was such an awesome tribute for the women to play at the NHL All-Star Game this year. That was exciting. Then you look at the skills competition in 2019, where Kendall Coyne Schofield rocked it [in the Fastest Skater event]. We just need to be seen. I think from there, people will care.
Away from the rink, what movies or books have you gotten into lately?
My favourite movie right now is Harriet [2019, starring Cynthia Erivo]. Obviously, Harriet Tubman is my superhero. If you haven’t watched that movie, you should. It’s probably one of the most inspirational movies I’ve ever seen.
In terms of books I’m reading, I read a lot of Ellen Tadd, a lot of self-help books. I’m really spiritually guided, so I like to meditate and Zen out with some sage and read up on my spiritual cleansing journey. I use these self-help books to help my girls, especially within my mentorship program.
To wrap this up with some more food for thought, you’ve self-published a new vegetarian cookbook called Eat in Color. What’s the story there?
It’s plant-based, gluten-free, all natural, organic ingredients. A lot of stuff from my garden. It was really fun to make. I made every page by myself. It was my little gift to whoever cares!
I like to call myself a flexitarian because I’ll eat ice cream that’s dairy. Or I’ll go to Vermont to my boyfriends’ parents’ house and they have chickens, so I’ll eat their eggs. So it just kind of depends where it’s from and how I’m feeling. If I’m in Hawaii and there’s Hanalei Poke [on Kauai], I’m not going to pass up the best poke in the world, you know?