Tarasai Karega isn't the only child who was turned on to hockey by Disney's 1992 film, "The Mighty Ducks." But as a young African-American girl growing up in Detroit, it wasn't Charlie Conway or Adam Banks -- the team's two fictional star players -- that she emulated.
"Jesse [Hall, played by actor Brandon Adams] stood out to me because he was the only black kid on the team," Karega said. "I'd tell my mom I wanted to play hockey and she did some research on organizations in Detroit."
It was a pivotal, if unlikely, turning point for an important hockey ambassador.
Often the only African-American female player on her teams growing up, Karega persevered to win a national title and now mentors youth through Ed Snider's foundation. (Photo: Tarasai Karega)
Karega began playing with the Detroit Dragons of the Detroit Hockey Association, an organization affiliated with the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone program. Later, as a star at Cranbrook-Kingswood School in suburban Bloomfield Hills, MI, she was named Michigan's Ms. Hockey in 2005 and scored the game-tying goal and double-overtime winner in the clinching game of the state championship tournament.
From there, Karega enjoyed a standout career at Amherst College, where she was named first-team All-NESCAC as a sophomore and led the school to its first NCAA Division III women's national championship in her senior year. She graduated with a 3.43 grade-point average and a desire to impart the on- and off-ice skills she developed through hockey.
"I've played since I was nine, and it's taught me how to manage various aspects of my life," Karega said. "Time management is a big aspect of what I do, and playing hockey taught me that."
Since graduating in 2009, Karega has been on a mission to share her love for hockey. She started doing that through her work with the Alaska Diversity Hockey Camp, a Wasilla-based camp founded by Scott Gomez and featuring DHA president Will McCants as well as Willie O'Ree, the man who famously broke the NHL color barrier with the Boston Bruins in 1958.
Since 2010, she has worked as a coordinator in Philadelphia with the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. Founded by the Philadelphia Flyers owner, the inner-city program's self-proclaimed mission is "to help educate young people to succeed in the game of life."
Karega's on-ice exploits alone would have qualified her to help mentor young people through hockey. But her background, not to mention some of the adversity she has dealt with over her career, lends her other qualities. The kind of leadership qualities one develops from taking up hockey while her friends grow up playing basketball and baseball. The kind of real-life experiences that make her an ideal mentor to young people who may grow up confronting the same ignorance she did.
"I've played since I was nine, and it's taught me how to manage various aspects of my life. Time management is a big aspect of what I do, and playing hockey taught me that."
-- Tarasai Karega
"I can laugh about it now, because I'm an adult and I've learned to handle situations. But growing up, especially in Detroit, there were three other black girls on my team, and we would experience things," Karega said. "People called us names. It was tough. And then when I went to high school and college, I was the only one. It was just me by myself. People are kind of confused when they see someone like myself playing hockey."
The perseverance she exhibited through that time serves her well today. As a coordinator of hockey operations with Snider's foundation, Karega manages one of five Philadelphia facilities used to provide kids with free ice time, coaching and equipment. The game may be the focus, but her work is about more than just goals and assists.
"Hockey is the hook. That's what drew me to work for the Snider Youth Hockey Foundation," Karega said. "They're prioritizing aspects of life that are going to help these kids in the future. Our goal isn't to produce the next Claude Giroux, it's to help kids graduate from high school and college, and learn a cool and fun sport at the same time."