Black women’s love of hockey evolves into a fan club
Group creates a safe space for women of color to watch and discuss the sport
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The women were led down a hallway and told to stand along the wall outside the Nashville Predators’ locker room. The group included Erica and Rachel Melcher, twin 41-year-old sisters from St. Louis, who would need to get on the road soon to beat a looming ice storm; high school friends Alisa Barada and Meredith Hoog, now 30, who live on opposite coasts but see each other twice a year to knock a different hockey arena off their bucket list; and Eunice Artis and her 15-year-old son, Isaiah, who came in from Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
The group — all 27 of them, ages 2 to 60 — laughed and shared stories and then, finally, he was there. Walking down the hallway in a knee-length black trench coat and signature fedora was Predators star defenseman P.K. Subban. “Ohmygoodness!” one of the women squealed.
“Hey, guys,” Subban said. “I’m going to start at the front. Don’t worry, I’m going to get to all of you.” And, one by one, he smiled, posed for selfies and signed everything from a copy of the EA NHL 19 video game that featured him on the cover to a jersey from his former team, the Montreal Canadiens.
When he was done, Subban asked a Predators staffer to take a group picture on his cellphone and then said goodbye. “Thanks for coming out,” he said as he walked down the hallway. Then he pivoted, looked back and shouted: “Black Girl Hockey Club!”
“We’ve had experiences beyond what I could have even dreamed of when I started this,” said Renee Hess. “But the best part of it is being able to do it together.” Hess, 39, is from Riverside, California. She’s an adjunct professor of English at La Sierra University and a freelance writer. She’s also a hockey fan, and she’s avid about her favorite sport on Twitter.
But whenever she went to an Anaheim Ducks or Los Angeles Kings game, she couldn’t help but notice that she never saw two black women there together. And as she became more active trying to interact with other hockey fans on Twitter, she felt a sense of loneliness.
“And you know how social media can be, it’s not always the best environment,” she said. “There can always be that little tinge of racism when you’re talking about a predominantly white sport. I just wanted there to be a safe space for black women to converse and talk about hockey.”
Since Hess is an academic, her first instinct was to contextualize her experiences. She wondered how many other women out there had shared her experience. Hess created a survey and called it the Black Hockey Research Project.
Hess pointed out that there were only three female professional black hockey players in North America and asked respondents why they felt women of color were missing from the narrative of professional hockey. What, if any, discrimination had respondents experienced personally as a person of color hockey fan? What is their biggest disappointment in terms of the NHL and hockey fandom, and why? What is their favorite hockey-related memory?
As Hess parsed the responses, she noticed patterns.
“I found that there were a lot of black female hockey fans, but they didn’t go to games for various reasons,” she said. “They didn’t feel comfortable in the arena, they didn’t feel like they fit in there. They were getting questioning looks, stuff like that. Not to mention the trolls one encounters on an online platform when they want to discuss the game.”
Hess had already found a handful of other black female hockey fans on Twitter, and they created a group chat where they discussed the sport. Hess jokingly called it the Black Girl Hockey Club. She wanted to help grow their community and transition their online communication to a real-life meetup.
Hess settled on a date in December 2018, during her academic break, and decided on Washington, D.C., as the location. There are only 24 black players in the NHL this season, and two of them (Devante Smith-Pelly and Madison Bowey) played for the Capitals at the time. D.C. is also home to Fort Dupont, the oldest and longest-running minority hockey program in North America.
“I put it out there: Any black woman out there who wants to go to a hockey game?” Hess said. “Let’s do it, let’s go together, as a group. We’ll roll deep, it will be a blast. It turned into this big adventure.”
The inaugural Black Girl Hockey Club meetup occurred on Dec. 16, 2018. More than 40 women, ages 6 to 91, showed up. National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) player Kelsey Koelzer came with her mom. Bill Douglas, who has long run the popular Color of Hockey blog, helped make arrangements with the Washington Capitals, and afterward the group met Bowey, Smith-Pelly and a handful of other Capitals players in the locker room.
“Seeing a group of not only black, but black women, joining forces for the love of the game is crazy, and something I never, ever thought I’d see,” Smith-Pelly said afterward.
“You have to remember, from the players’ point of view, they’re not used to seeing people like them in the stands watching their games,” said Canadian filmmaker Damon Kwame Mason, who directed the documentary Soul on Ice. “So this is just as special for them.”
Hockey is a predominantly white sport, and the fans who come to watch reflect those demographics. Consider the hockey-related Saturday Night Live skit that aired in November. Chance the Rapper, portraying a New York Knicks reporter forced to fill in for a colleague at a New York Rangers game, is asked to analyze a play. Instead, he asks the cameraman to zoom in on the stands. “There is a black hockey fan!” he says incredulously. “So I will be talking to him at the postgame show and find out what’s going on there.”
The NHL has made efforts to expand its audience. The league has had a Hockey Is for Everyone initiative since 1995. Willie O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first black player in 1958, has been a league diversity ambassador since 1996. This year marks the first time the NHL is celebrating Black History Month, which includes a Black Hockey History Museum mobile tour that Mason helped curate.
Immediately after the Capitals game, Hess began planning the second meetup. She chose Feb. 10 in Nashville because it was a doubleheader: a Predators vs. St. Louis Blues game, followed by the NWHL All-Star Game. Hess had never seen a professional women’s hockey game live. “That’s what sold it for me,” she said.
The Predators opened up their arena to the Black Girl Hockey Club on Saturday for a free skate and a viewing of Mason’s documentary on the Jumbotron. Hess reserved a block of 30 tickets — $100 a pop, in the last row of the 300 section — and filled them. During the game, the group was focused on the ice. During breaks, and as they moved to the lower bowl for the NWHL All-Star Game, they chatted about their hockey stories.
Erica and Rachel Melcher’s uncle took them to a Blues game in St. Louis when they were 5. Soon afterward, they began playing with brooms and broken sticks in their driveway, and at 11 they began skating regularly. Although they got high school jobs working at the ice rink, they never played hockey. The sport was simply too expensive, and there weren’t any women’s teams.
Then in 1996, after they had graduated, the commissioner of the ice rink said he wanted to start a women’s adult league. At the time, 40 women signed up, and they filled two teams. They recruited some men from the men’s league to coach and practiced once a week. “The next few years it got really competitive,” Erica Melcher said. “We registered with USA Hockey and more and more women started signing up, and they would bring their daughters too. But in our whole time playing hockey, we never really saw other black women playing, except for one time.”
Rachel Melcher brought her two daughters, ages 2 and 4, to the meetup. Although the sisters still play pickup — a bit less now, with more hectic work schedules — Erica Melcher knows if her nieces choose to play, it will be a lot easier to find opportunities.
For Eunice Artis, it’s important to show her son that his experiences in Nazareth don’t have to be the norm. “My son has been the only minority kid on every single team he’s played on,” Artis said. “I’m always the only minority mom at every single game. We love hockey so much, but it can make us feel alone. When I saw about the Black Girl Hockey Club online, I was like, ‘Wait, there are other people like me who like hockey?’ I was so grateful.”
Isaiah Artis, an alternate captain and leading scorer for the Midget 16A Lehigh Valley Youth Phantoms, loves Subban because he was the first black NHL player he ever saw on TV. He can also relate to Smith-Pelly, who last year was the subject of a racist taunt during a game in Chicago when fans shouted, “Basketball! Basketball!” at him. (The four fans were banned from the United Center for life.) The coded racism is unfortunately common for Isaiah. When he recently went to an allergist, the doctor assumed he played basketball and had looked shocked when he said, “Actually, hockey.”
While Smith-Pelly has said he has never felt not included on the ice — it has been fans who have presented a problem — Isaiah Artis has stories of being called slurs by opponents. Eunice Artis has filed reports with the league, but she doesn’t believe they’ve been handled appropriately. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, this kid says he didn’t say it.’ ‘He doesn’t remember it happening.’ ‘He’s the captain of the team, he wouldn’t do something like that,’ ” Eunice Artis said. “It can be frustrating. But he loves the sport, and I love the sport, and so we carry on. I try to take him to different arenas every year so he can have different hockey experiences. I have to go out and find them.”
Growing up in St. Louis, nobody in Alisa Barada’s family liked hockey, and she didn’t feel that the sport was for her. But through college, she noticed a lot of her Tumblr followers reblogging goal GIFs and hockey content and she slowly became more intrigued. It was convenient that her best friend, Hoog, was a hockey fan, and as they lived together in San Francisco then moved apart (Barada is now in Los Angeles, while Hoog is in D.C.), hockey became a way for them to stay in touch. They plan a trip twice each year to see a game together but find going to games individually a problem.
In 2016, Barada went to a preseason Dallas Stars versus Los Angeles Kings game in Las Vegas and a fight broke out in her section. “It was off-putting,” Barada said. “I asked myself, Should I keep going to games? In general, hockey fans can be great, but that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of what could have or has happened. I’m lucky I have a lot of female friends who like hockey and want to go with me, but still, you walk up and you look around and there’s not a lot of black folks like me. So I’m always wondering, How is this going to play out? Hockey games are a lot of people getting really passionate. You know that passion can turn into aggression, and then you add in copious amounts of alcohol that can be present at a game, so you worry about that.”
Hoog said as a single woman, she sticks to the buddy system. “I’m a white female, so it’s a little different for me than Alisa, but I also don’t feel comfortable going alone,” Hoog said. She was recently at a game in Boston and asked a few men in her section to walk out with her because things were getting rowdy.
Hoog found out about the Black Girl Hockey Club on Twitter and immediately sent it to Barada (who had come across it as well). “You need to go to this,” Hoog said. “I’m happy to hold off on this trip if this is something you just want to do.” They reached out to Hess to see if Hoog was welcome. The answer was, of course. It’s all about inclusivity, after all.
Hess is planning to launch a newsletter in March and hopes to host four to six meetups across the country next year.
The group is hoping to get involved with the plans to refurbish Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast D.C. “I love the idea of sharing the work and plans of BGHC hockey moms, players and fans with one another in order to develop a network of information within our hockey community,” Hess said. “It’s important to me that the women and allies of BGHC know that they are not alone and that they have a support system within our little group.”
Hess saw that support system at play her recently. She was invited to attend the NHL’s Black History Month event in D.C. on Wednesday, hosted by the Canadian Embassy, which will honor O’Ree. But after receiving the invitation, she said, she had “about a full day of brooding” and lamented on Twitter that she would love to go but couldn’t justify the cost to fly out for a party on the other side of the country. Her Twitter Black Girl Hockey Club family suggested she start a GoFundMe campaign; within 24 hours, she had raised the full amount of the travel costs.
She’s hoping to catch a Capitals game while in town. “I love hockey way too much to miss a chance to see a game live,” she said.
The Melcher sisters were the first to leave the Nashville meetup on Sunday. As they said their goodbyes, they promised to see everyone soon. “Everyone [here] is passionate about the game, but we have different stories, and backgrounds and experiences,” Hess said. “The Black Girl Hockey Club is about bringing people together.”