Kelsey Koelzer said she's been pleasantly surprised by what she's seen on recruiting trips as coach of Arcadia University's new women's hockey team: more Black girls playing the game.
"As I'm recruiting, I feel I'm constantly shocked that it's getting less and less out of the ordinary to see girls that are getting recruited to NCAA [Division I] who are (Black)," said Koelzer, a former Princeton University player who is the first Black woman to coach an NCAA hockey team and in 2016 became the first Black player to be chosen No. 1 in the National Women's Hockey League draft. "I think it's a really hopeful sign."
Koelzer and others say they are seeing a slow but steady increase in the number of Black players in women's college hockey in the United States, fueled in part by the growth in girls hockey worldwide and a greater emphasis on making the sport more diverse, inclusive and welcoming for players of color.
There are at least 13 Black players on NCAA Division I and Division III women's hockey rosters this season, up from four in 2019 and surpassing the nine who played in 2015, according to the NCAA demographic database.
Players this season include University of Wisconsin defenseman Chayla Edwards, Clarkson University defenseman Avery Mitchell, University of New Hampshire forward Tamara Thierus, Syracuse University forward Rayla Clemons, Lindenwood University forward Jada Burke, Finlandia University defenseman India Charles, Yale University forward Kiersten Goode, Augsburg University forward Kensie Malone, State University of New York-Plattsburgh defenseman Sierra Benjamin, Nazareth College forward Maria Di Cresce, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute forward Asiah Taylor-Waters, Lindenwood University defenseman Teagan Heaslip and Dartmouth College forward Jennifer Costa.
"The numbers are fun to see because younger girls out there, they're trying to find their role models but sometimes people have a hard time seeing themselves in others," said Thierus, a 20-year-old sophomore from St. Jerome, Quebec. "I know as a young girl I would have loved to see someone like me play at a high level. I'm happy someone can look at me and say, 'I want to be like this when I'm older.'"
Hockey traditionally has been a lonely path for young Black girls. They're most likely to be the only one or one of the few players of color on their teams, said Mitchell, a 21-year-old senior who helped Clarkson win the NCAA championship in 2018 and finished second with Canada at the 2017 IIHF Under-18 Women's World Championship.
"I definitely think it's just the matter of it not being encouraged enough and it's a sort of stereotype that hockey is more a sport for white people, which is not true," Mitchell said. "I think it's a matter of not being encouraged and not seeing representation."
That's starting to change, said Blake Bolden, a former Boston College defenseman who became the first Black player in the NWHL in 2015 and the first Black first-round draft pick in the Canadian Women's Hockey League in 2013. She calls the growing presence of Black women on college rosters "exciting and amazing."
"Girls hockey has grown tremendously over the last few years so I think it's inevitable that there would be more diversity in the game. Not tons, but it's an improvement, so that's good," said Bolden, who became the first Black female NHL pro scout when she was hired by the Los Angeles Kings in February 2020.
The success on and off the ice of former college players like Bolden, Koelzer and Sarah Nurse, a former University of Wisconsin forward and member of Canada's Women's Olympic hockey team that won a silver medal at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, also has contributed.
Edwards said Nurse's four seasons at Wisconsin, during which she scored 137 points (76 goals, 61 assists) in 150 games, persuaded her to commit to the university, which has a Black student population of less than 3 percent.
"That (low Black student population) kind of made me hesitant, but then I saw, OK, Sarah Nurse is there, she's playing, she's amazing, playing really well," said Edwards, a 19-year-old sophomore from Cleveland. "I can go to that campus, be OK, still play hockey and do what I came to do. I can still address the race issue, as she did. I don't have to be scared to speak out."
More hockey and athletics programs are emphasizing diversity and inclusion at all levels, with the hope of making players of all backgrounds feel comfortable and welcome, Bolden said.
"This past year I have had numerous calls with prep schools that I've been to and that I've worked with just wanting to be more educated in supporting diverse individuals and players," she said.
Thierus said she's comfortable at New Hampshire because of her involvement with the UNH Athletics Committee on Mutual Respect, an organization established to help foster an inclusive culture among student-athletes, coaches and staff. Women's hockey assistant Bill Bowes is a member of the group.
Thierus and several teammates have kneeled during the playing of the U.S. national anthem this season to support for the fight against racial injustice.
"I do feel very supported here," Thierus said. "I feel it's a good message to start a conversation between each other and be better as people. We're all the same here playing sports and enjoying ourselves."
Koelzer said she expects the number of Black players in NCAA women's hockey to grow in the next five years, "Because there has been this push to make hockey, especially women's hockey, a more inclusive place."
Mitchell said an assist in that growth also could come from a Black hockey-themed Tim Hortons Barbie doll that was inspired by Nurse and made amid the anti-racism protests in the summer of 2020.
The donut chain sold nearly 25,000 Black dolls and a white version inspired by 2018 Canada Olympic women's hockey captain Marie-Philip Poulin that were manufactured by Mattel, said Chris Wakefield, a regional marketing and sponsorship lead for Tim Hortons.
"You can really change a young girl's life with that if she thought about not playing hockey because of the stereotypes she hears," Mitchell said. "She can look at the doll, talk about Sarah Nurse and get the extra push to keep going."
Photos: Jim Meagher, Tom Lynn