When Renee Hess started the Black Girl Hockey Club in 2018, she considered it "a labor of love" to establish a community of Black women who followed and loved the sport. She connected with several Black female fans on Twitter, half-kiddingly calling their group chat, "Black Girl Hockey Club." The name stuck--and that's just the opening faceoff of the BGHC story.
Hess soon decided getting together in person for an NHL game was the right plan at the right time. She circled a Washington Capitals home game in mid-December for three reasons: It was during her academic break from teaching English at La Sierra University in Riverside, CA; the Capitals roster included two Black players, Devante Smith-Pelly and Madison Bowey (who met with the traveling party before the game); and D.C. is home to the Fort Dupont minority hockey program, both the first and longest-running of its kind. The NHL game meetup was the first of several more during that season, including two in New York and another in Nashville.
"At the first game in D.C., I realized this was more impactful than a bunch of fans getting together," says Hess. "It was community building, networking, getting to know the sport of hockey and seeing there are other Black fans, fans maybe we didn't know were out there."
But Hess admits she didn't anticipate Black Girl Hockey Club would so rapidly evolve into an advocacy nonprofit organization focusing on "making hockey more inclusive for Black women, our families, friends and allies" while staying true to the original intent to inspire and sustain passion for the game of hockey within the Black community, "especially with our mothers, sisters, daughters and friends."
While the COVID-19 pandemic has tabled in-person events or meetups since February, BGHC has been staging virtual dialogues with stakeholders, advocates and thought leaders in the hockey community. Those discussions sparked a new "Get Uncomfortable" campaign in which BGHC is bringing together BIPOC players, fans, media members, executives, sponsors, allies and others to take the pledge to "disrupt racism on and off the ice and make hockey welcoming for everyone."
Seattle Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke announced Wednesday the 32nd NHL franchise is taking the "Get Uncomfortable" pledge as an organization. More than 3,300 pledges have been registered and shared on social media since the campaign's Sept. 23 launch. The Kraken are the first NHL team to take the pledge.
"The Kraken have a passion for the sport of hockey as does Black Girl Hockey Club and we are aligned with the mission to disrupt racism on and off the ice," says Leiweke. "We are committed to making our great game accessible to everyone. It will require challenges to the norm and commitment throughout our sport."
"We're really excited about what Seattle is already doing as a franchise," says Hess. "It's been amazing to watch."
Hess says it will require "a lot people to help shift the current hockey culture." But that doesn't mean BGHC and those who pledge want to upend the sport's positive attributes.
"Like every hockey fan, it's exciting to see the teamwork and team mentality need to win a Stanley Cup," says Hess. "It's one big reason I love this game-players on the same wavelength through all the rounds of the playoffs. What we want to do with the "Get Uncomfortable" campaign is unravel that part of the hockey culture that makes team more important than each individual deserving to be treated with respect and equality."
While BGHC plans to seek continuing input from the hockey community, including all who take the pledge, the nonprofit has posted "preliminary campaign objectives" on its website:
+ Encourage the hockey community to make a welcoming space for Black girls and all BIPOC communities as players and fans of the sport.
+ Employ and recruit BIPOC applicants to begin the process of diversifying hockey at all levels.
+ Educate the hockey community on social justice and allyship with guidance from BIPOC leaders, anti-racism experts, advocates, players and fans.
It adds up to a major shift for BGHC and a eye-opening journey from when Hess attended Los Angeles Kinds and Anaheim Ducks games noticing she didn't see two or more Black women sitting together watching the action.
"Maybe it's because we started out in the fan space that we are now getting such a rich and diverse group of allies," says Hess, reflecting on the whirlwind last two years, which included becoming a nonprofit and awarding its first scholarship ($5,000) to fund a Black girl in Ontario, CA, to play the sport she loves at a next level of competition (more scholarships are in the works). "We've had some enriching conversations with players along the way. Going virtual since February has given us the opportunity to buckle down and figure out what is important to us."
The "Get Uncomfortable" campaign is one outcome. Fans can take the pledge at https://blackgirlhockeyclub.org/.