National Women’s Hockey League struggling to add diversity

Hockey, like many winter sports, has long been referred to as a “white man’s game.” Approximately 5% of National Hockey League players are black.

With the creation of the National Women’s Hockey League two years ago, that saying can be expanded to a white woman’s game.

Among the four teams in the NWHL — Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whales and New York Riveters — there are two black players. Kelsey Koelzer plays for the Riveters and Kaliya Johnson for the Pride. In this month’s NWHL draft, one black woman from was selected, Nina Rodgers by the Connecticut Whale. She played for the U.S. Under-18 team in 2013 and 2014.

The NWHL starts Oct. 28 and runs until March 10, 2018.

Blake Bolden, the first African American in the NWHL and first African American drafted in the first round of the Canadian Hockey Women’s League, decided earlier this year to play overseas for HC Lugano, one of the teams among the most elite of professional women’s leagues in Switzerland.

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Bolden grew up in Cleveland, where she started playing hockey at age 7 at the suggestion of a white man her mother was dating. She played on boys’ teams until high school, when her family moved to Lake Placid, N.Y., so she could play on a girls’ team to strengthen her hockey skills and gain visibility from college scouts. On the Northwood School girls’ team, she was not only the lone black player but also the only black student at the school.

Her mother’s advice, common among black parents raising children in majority white communities: “You are different and you need to be stronger and better and faster so there’s no doubt that you don’t belong.”

She and Johnson, both former defensemen for Boston College’s women’s team, played together again on the Pride right after college.

“You feel as though you have to stick together,” Johnson said.

And while they formed a close relationship, it’s clear Johnson doesn’t want them to remain an anomaly. “I want it to be normal for me to see another young black girl playing, not something that I am excited about because I never see another young black girl.”

Last year, the NWHL announced a partnership with You Can Play, an advocacy group that promotes LGBTQ equality in athletics, and calls itself a league promoting “equality, empowerment, and inclusiveness.” But there have not been similar overtures to encourage ethnic diversity.

Many complaints about hockey’s lack of diversity center on cost and lack of access to rinks in urban communities. Skates, protective gear, travel and other costs could run a family around $40,000 a year depending on the level. For many hockey parents, like Bolden’s, this requires taking second jobs to finance the sport.

“Boxing and basketball were sort of the inner-city sports and a way to fight your way out of the ghetto — hockey was never that,” said Eric Zweig, a Canadian-based hockey historian. “Why wouldn’t you play basketball or football where you can play at school and, if you’re good enough, you’ll get a scholarship to the state or college and you don’t have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars of equipment and leagues and travel.”

Kwame Mason, producer and director of Soul On Ice: Past, Present, and Future, a film that highlights black athletes in the NHL, believes the lack of seeing people like you in the game is the primary reason for the lack of black players in ice hockey.

 “Sure, you can’t afford to play hockey, sure you can’t afford ice time but why can’t you watch the game of hockey?” said Mason. “A lot of those times it’s because you’re looking at a game like, ‘I can’t relate. There’s no one there that looks like me that even plays this game.’ ”