Talk about being in the right place at the right time.
Blake Bolden, a defenseman who played for Buffalo of the NWHL last season, was at a Los Angeles Kings game in November with members of the Black Girl Hockey Club when she and the group met team president Luc Robitaille during a tour of Staples Center.
Bolden struck up a conversation with Robitaille after Damon Kwame Mason, producer of the black hockey history documentary "Soul on Ice, Past, Present and Future" and a curator of the 2020 NHL Black Hockey History Tour mobile museum, introduced the two.
"He and I just started talking about hockey and me playing professionally," she said. "He said 'Oh, yeah, I've been reading up on everything you guys have been doing, that's tremendous. Have you ever thought about getting into scouting?'"
That chance encounter led to Bolden being hired by the Kings last month as a pro scout, assigned to assess American Hockey League talent in the Pacific region. She is likely the League's first black female pro scout and is the second woman to be hired by an NHL team in that role.
"I think with Black History Month and everything, it's magnified a bit and it's awesome," Bolden said of the historical significance of her hiring. "But right now, I am so focused on doing my job to the best of my abilities and kind of earning respect and just working. But, obviously, it's super-cool and, hopefully this sheds light on how awesome the Kings organization is and how they're open to making opportunities and women of color."
Bolden is the latest in a growing list of women working on the hockey operations side of NHL teams. She follows Cammi Granato, a Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and Olympic gold medalist, who was hired by NHL Seattle as a pro scout in September. The team hired analytics expert Alexandra Mandrycky to be its director of hockey strategy and research.
The Toronto Maple Leafs last year hired Hayley Wickenheiser, another Hockey Hall of Famer, as their assistant director of player development and Noelle Needham as an amateur scout.
"You're seeing it across all sports now, right?" said Katie Crowley, who coached Bolden at Boston College from 2009-10 to 2012-13. "With football, they've had female coaches and whatnot. I can only see it growing and continuing to be more opportunities for women in those roles, especially as our sport continues to grow. More girls are playing hockey now. The more kids you have playing, the more down the line there will be more women in coaching roles and roles like Cammi and Blake."
Nelson Emerson, the Kings' director of player personnel and Bolden's supervisor, said the team hired her because they were impressed by her experience, knowledge and dedication to a game that she began playing as a 7-year-old in Cleveland.
In addition to scouting, Bolden trains athletes, coaches the San Diego Junior Gulls Under-12 girls team in her adopted hometown and plays on the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association's Dream Gap Tour, a series of showcase events aimed at closing the gap between what boys and girls can aspire to achieve.
Photo courtesy of Heather Pollock/PWHPA
"She's played, she gets it," Emerson said. "She's traveled around the world. It's not easy in hockey with what these (professional) girls have been doing and going through. I think that all comes to play in her reports and how she talks to us and when she's evaluating players.
"She's still a young person, but someone who's mature beyond her years," Emerson said. "She has such a confidence about her. You walk out the room and you think, 'Wow, this person is going to go far in life.'"
Bolden said she never thought about being a scout before her conversation with Robitaille.
"I just didn't think it was something I could do, that was available," she said. "I knew I could do it, if the opportunity presented itself, but I didn't know that was an opportunity. So when it presented itself, I was, like, 'Yeah, heck yeah, why not?' That sounds really cool -- to use my knowledge of the game and potentially help make some dreams come true."
Bolden does some travel for the scouting job, but she largely assesses talent as AHL teams visit San Diego to play the Anaheim Ducks farm team. Her duties include watching games, attending scouting meetings and writing reports for the Kings and their AHL affiliate in Ontario, California.
"I'm looking at particular players and their skill sets," she said. "Every team has their own individual scouts in these regions, and they're trying to fill puzzle pieces with the AHL teams and NHL teams. It's all about what the Kings or Ontario Reign (their AHL team) are potentially looking for. Maybe they're looking for a power forward or a defenseman that is offensive or this or that. Whatever they want is what I'm looking for."
Bolden has been a barrier-breaker throughout her career. The 28-year-old Cleveland native was the first U.S.-born black player in the now-defunct Canadian Women's Hockey League when she joined its Boston franchise in 2013-14. She had 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists) in 45 games during two seasons.
She became the NWHL's first black player when she signed with its Boston team in 2015-16 and put up 28 points (three goals, 25 assists) in 51 games for Boston and Buffalo.
Photo courtesy of Michelle Jay/NWHL
Bolden played on championship teams in each of the North American women's pro hockey leagues. To cure a case of wanderlust, she played for Lugano in Switzerland in 2017-18 and had 27 points (16 goals, 11 assists) in 20 games.
She got her first taste of international competition as a teenager playing on the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the IIHF Under-18 World Junior Championship in 2008-09. Bolden turned pro after four seasons at Boston College, where she had 82 points (26 goals, 56 assists) in 139 games and was captain during her senior season.
Bolden's former college coach has no doubt she will succeed in her new position.
"She's such a great leader," Crowley said. "When she was a player, everything was about the team and how she could help the team be better. She knows that side, the leadership side, that it takes a lot of different things to make a great hockey player. I'm excited to see how she'll do in this role. I'm sure she'll excel."
Bolden said she's a hockey lifer, but one who doesn't follow a specific career road map.
"I just want to make a difference," she said. "I want to be a pioneer for the sport. However, whatever way that makes sense, that's probably what I'm going to do. Right now it's scouting and I'm enjoying it."
Lead photo courtesy of Heather Pollock/PWHPA