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Color of Hockey

Color of Hockey: Tennessee State could be first HBCU with Division I team

Pursuing plans to start men's, women's programs with feasibility study funded by NHL, NHLPA

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / Staff Writer

William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past nine years. Douglas joined in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the sport. Today, he profiles efforts by Tennessee State University to become the first of the Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) to establish NCAA Division I men's and women's hockey programs.

Tennessee State University president Glenda Glover received an email recently from a parent whose son wanted to play hockey at one of the United States' Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) but was dismayed to learn that none offered the sport.

"She recalled a wide smile on her son's face when he shared an article about TSU looking to start a program," Glover said. "We're already starting to see the hope of the prospect of starting a hockey program at TSU."

The public university in Nashville has received a lot of attention since it announced May 21 that it's exploring becoming the first HBCU to have NCAA Division I men's and women's hockey programs.

A feasibility study, funded by the NHL and NHL Players' Association's Industry Growth Fund, is being conducted to determine what it would take in terms of cost, people power and facilities for the nearly 8,000-student university to join the NCAA hockey ranks.

The outcome of the study is expected in the fall. In the meantime, Glover is busy responding to congratulatory messages on TSU's hockey quest and fielding questions about why a predominantly Black institution is pursuing the sport.

TSU is among the more than 100 colleges and universities in the United States federally designated as HBCUs. They were established before 1964 with the primary mission of educating Black Americans who generally were denied admission to predominantly white schools in the pre-civil rights era.

"Our mission as an institution is to broaden the horizons of our students," Glover said. "This means providing access and exposure to areas they've been traditionally void of participation. So establishing men's and women's hockey teams will continue that growth."

TSU is the latest HBCU to consider or offer so-called "nontraditional sports" for their students. St. Augustine University in Florida launched the first HBCU cycling team last year. Hampton University started a men's lacrosse program in 2016. Howard University, through a donation from NBA star Steph Curry, renewed a golf team it disbanded in the 1970s.

TSU and other HBCUs have tapped into the $1.5 billion esports industry by forming competitive teams, some that compete in an HBCU esports league. 

"We're going to have virtual hockey games, so we're recruiting for hockey right now," Glover said. "The world is just changing. Young people's interests are changing.

"There's a growing interest in hockey, so it's very beneficial."

Glover received an encouraging call about hockey from Johnnetta Cole, a friend, mentor and former president of Spelman College and Bennett College, each a private women's HBCU.

She learned something new about Cole through their conversation: that she was a hockey mom to three sons when she taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in the 1970s and '80s.

One son, David Cole, went on to be a goalie for Williams College in Massachusetts and later work for the Atlanta Thrashers and Tampa Bay Lightning in their fan development departments. He currently coaches girls' hockey and goalies in Minnesota.

"It's not that it's a stereotype, but it's not a connection that is easily made, that I would be a hockey mom," said Cole, who is the national chair of the National Council of Negro Women and a member of the scholarly advisory committee of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. "I bet when the (feasibility study) is finished, we are going to uncover a lot of Black women who are into this because their children are into it."

TSU's hockey exploration may show other HBCUs they already have connections, mainly through their alumni. Kim Davis, NHL senior vice president of social impact, growth initiatives & legislative affairs and one of the most powerful women executives in professional sports, is a Spelman graduate.

John C. Brittain, a prominent civil rights attorney and former dean of the University of the District of Columbia's David A. Clarke School of Law, captained his high school hockey team in Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1962 before he attended Howard.

Wanton Davis, another Howard alum, is the executive producer for live events for the Los Angeles Kings.

"Normally hockey isn't a sport that we're really exposed to," Wanton Davis said. "But once you really get a taste of hockey, once you really understand hockey and get close to hockey, you understand how beautiful it is and how dynamic of a sport it is."

And newer bonds between hockey and HBCUs are being forged. The Nashville Predators, which support TSU hockey's drive, helped the university raise $1.7 million in February for merit-based and needs-based scholarships for students.

The Carolina Hurricanes sponsored a "College Colors" event for HBCUs for the first time Feb. 16, 2020, when Carolina hosted the Edmonton Oilers at PNC Arena.

Students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and North Carolina Central University who attended the game received Hurricanes caps in their school's colors with their college's logo on the side.

Glover said having hockey at TSU would take the bonds between HBCUs and the sport to another level.

"If we can move forward, I envision building a men's and women's hockey program that serve as a blueprint for other HBCUs and I see a continued partnership with the NHL and Nashville Predators," she said.

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