Black Girl Hockey Club comes to Canada
by Lucas Aykroyd|30 MAR 2023
Black Girl Hockey Club Canada members gather at centre ice after attending a Vancouver Canucks game at Rogers Arena in March.
photo: Vancouver Canucks
Vancouver’s Rogers Arena holds a big place in IIHF history as the site of Canada’s 2010 Olympic gold medal victories in women’s and men’s hockey. The home of the Canucks made a different kind of history during an 11 March game versus the Ottawa Senators as it hosted a special event for Black Girl Hockey Club (BGHC) Canada.

Renee Hess, who founded BGHC in the U.S. in 2018, flew up from Los Angeles to oversee the festivities. The Canadian sister organization defines itself as “a non-profit organization that focuses on making hockey more inclusive for not only Black women, but also our family, friends, and allies.”
Sponsored by the Canucks for Kids Fund, about 25 other BGHC supporters attended the 5-2 Canucks win. Vancouver-area guests ranged from fans with the Black Women Connect organization to the founder of Granted Sweater Company, which is designing a hand-knitted BGHC sweater. Western U.S. visitors included a BGHC scholarship recipient from Bellingham, Washington, a family from Portland, Oregon, and fans from California and Nevada.

“The unifying thread is that we’re all supporting Black women in hockey spaces,” Hess said. “And we want to make sure that the Canucks know that and recognize that’s why we’re here.”

In total, BGHC has about 8,000 newsletter subscribers and now boasts members as far away as England and Kenya. It’s nothing if not a diverse organization.

“We are all hockey fans, regardless of what we do for our day jobs,” Hess said. “We’ve got educators, scientists, and lawyers. We’ve got folks who are working in hockey and might not have anybody in their offices that look like them, as well as hockey players who might have anybody who looks like them on their team. So Black Girl Hockey Club provides that community space.”
While BGHC caters mainly to adult female fans in the U.S., the focus is a little different north of the 49th parallel.

“We decided to expand with Black Girl Hockey Club Canada because we found such a rich need for that community among young Black hockey-playing girls,” Hess aid. “There are many in Toronto, Vancouver, and across Canada, but they don’t know each other or that there are other girls that look like them. And so we bring them together. Up here, we’re concentrating on the athlete’s holistic wellness – mind, body and spirit. It’s great to get the girls together, do some yoga and off-ice training, go to games together, hop in the group chat, and just decompress sometimes.”

Hess personally followed an unconventional path to hockey fandom. As a longtime writing professor and community engagement administrator at Riverside’s La Sierra University, she “came to hockey as a nerd,” in her words, in the mid-2010’s.

“I researched it, I listened to games, I looked up ‘what is icing?’, and I started watching teams’ YouTube channels,” Hess aid said. “I took to social media to look for fellow Black girl hockey fans, and that’s really where the organization lives today, on the Internet.”

Via friends who cheered for the Pittsburgh Penguins, she became a fan of Yevgeni Malkin and celebrated back-to-back Cups for the Pens in 2016 and 2017.

Today, her appreciation of the Pennsylvania-based NHL franchise runs even deeper. That includes but isn’t limited to the proactive Black women in their front office, like Delvina Morrow (Vice President of Community Affairs) and Tracey McCants Lewis (Director of Human Resources).

“Another reason why I love the Penguins is what they’re doing in Black communities in Pittsburgh,” Hess said. “They’ve opened the Willie O’Ree Academy [named after the NHL’s first Black player, a 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee]. It’s closer to the downtown area, enabling young Black kids to get to the rink and practice more easily. The Academy offers a free hockey program where they can engage after they learn to skate. That’s a leg up in hockey, because you know many non-Black players have access to those opportunities either because they’re financially able to or they have connections in the hockey community. So what the Penguins are doing is shortening that road and providing equity for little Black boys and girls.”

Both in Canada and the U.S., BGHC offers scholarships for BIPOC girls to help defray the high costs associated with playing hockey, from equipment to league fees to travel. In Canada, those include scholarships named after stars like Angela James ($6,500), Blake Bolden ($4,500), and Sarah Nurse ($3,500).

In 2022, Nurse set a new Olympic points record (18) in Canada’s gold medal run in Beijing and Mikayla Grant-Mentis signed the then-largest contract in North American women’s pro hockey history ($80,000 for one season) with the Buffalo Beauts of the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF).

This year, the NHL has just launched Ice Queens, a new documentary about Black women in hockey. Events like these have a significant ripple effect for BGHC as it aims to increase visibility.

Ice Queens | NHL Original Productions Show
Ice Queens, a documentary showcasing Black women in hockey, will make its broadcast debut across North America during Women’s History Month. Ice Queens is a film about resilience, perseverance and jubilance as well as the continued efforts and valuable contributions of Black women to the game of hockey.

Produced in association with NHL Original Productions, Ice Queens uses personal interviews, archival footage and nostalgic photography to tell stories of triumph and overcoming, while exploring the intersection of gender, race and hockey.
30 MAR 2023
“In terms of my favourite women’s hockey players, I’d definitely say Sarah Nurse,” Hess said. “I was lucky enough to do some broadcasting with CBC during the Olympics. Coming in as an American, I guess everyone was expecting me to root for the U.S., but the whole time, all I could do was talk about Sarah Nurse because she kept breaking records! She’s amazing. I’m a huge fan of Hilary Knight as well. That American team has done amazing things. But the Canadians were on a roll in the last Olympics – there was no stopping them.”

Speaking of unstoppable forces, Hess gave a special shoutout to Saroya Tinker. The 2015 IIHF U18 Women’s Worlds silver medalist and current Toronto Six defender serves as the executive director of BGHC Canada.

“She’s playing pro hockey, running a non-profit, doing these amazing campaigns with Nike and Athleta, the list goes on,” Hess said. “She’s amazing and passionate. She is happy to be an inspiration and to build something better for the ones that come after her. That’s her motto. We’ve connected our scholarship girls with Saroya for mentoring for a couple of years, even before Black Girl Hockey Club Canada. To see these girls just fall in love with Saroya and her passion for the game and to see how much they appreciate what she does, it shows she’s the right one to do this job.”

Hess is also working on a book about race, hockey, and community, which she hopes to publish in the fall of 2024. Could a European chapter of BGHC be in the cards? We’ll have to wait and see.

“I’m really excited about the future because we’ve got all these little seeds planted,” Hess said. “I can’t wait to see them grow!”