William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past eight years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the game. Today, he looks at Kelsey Koelzer, the first black person to be named coach at an NCAA hockey team at any level.
Kelsey Koelzer is accustomed to being first.
Koelzer became the first black person to head an NCAA hockey team at any level when she was hired in September to lead the new women's program at Arcadia University, a Division III school outside of Philadelphia.
She was the first black player to be the No. 1 pick in a professional North American hockey league draft when the New York Riveters of the NWHL selected her from Princeton University in 2016.
Being a trailblazer is a blessing, not a burden, Koelzer said as she transitions from player to coach and works to build a college team that will start play in the 2021-22 season.
"I'm extremely proud and humbled and honored to be holding that position," she said. "But at the end of the day, I have a job and, as much as any other coach who needs to prove themselves, that's what I'm focused on -- just doing the absolute best I can."
But she's also aware the significance of her position and its potential impact to help grow the game within communities of color.
"Being African American and being one of the first in this position, it just kind of helps me fuel my efforts," she said. "My love of the game always kind of overtook any doubts in my mind in terms if I belonged there. But I think it's something that a lot of people do struggle with, not having that representation and not having that figure that they can look up to and relate to. So I think having somebody in a leadership position that can be that role model and show people that there is a chance for you to make a statement and hold a leadership position and that they deserve as much as anyone else to be playing in the sport and succeeding in the sport."
Sarah Nurse, a forward for Canada's women's team that won the silver medal at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, said Koelzer's hiring is a milestone.
"It gives me a lot of pride, and she's inspiring a lot of young girls," said Nurse, who had 137 points (76 goals, 61 assists) in 150 games for the University of Wisconsin from 2013-14 to 2016-17. "She's somebody who I don't know on a personal level amazingly, but just from what I've seen and heard, she's always pushing. She wants to be at the top and it's pretty impressive to see. It's pretty cool that she's making waves in the hockey community."
Koelzer is one of three black coaches in NCAA hockey. Paul Jerrard, a former coach for the Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars, is an assistant on the University of Nebraska-Omaha's Division I men's team. Leon Hayward is an assistant with Colorado College's Division I men's program.
Koelzer played for Princeton from 2013-14 to 2016-17 and was captain during her senior season. The 24-year-old defenseman had 100 points (39 goals, 61 assists) in 128 games. She earned first team All-American, Ivy League Player of the Year, and first-team All-Ivy League honors during her collegiate career.
As a pro, she helped the Riveters to the NWHL Isobel Cup championship in 2018 and shared MVP honors at the league's All-Star Game that year with forward Hayley Scamurra.
Koelzer had 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 20 games in three injury-plagued NWHL seasons.
In March, she was named to the NHL and NHLPA Female Hockey Advisory Committee.
Koelzer is a member of the PWHPA's Dream Gap Tour to promote, advance and support a single, viable professional women's hockey league in North America.
Now she's a history-making coach who's spending a lot of time on the road these days recruiting players for Arcadia's inaugural team.
Koelzer said that, as a coach of color, she's intrigued when she sees minority players on the recruiting trail. She grew up in Horsham, Pennsylvania, near Arcadia's campus, and was one of the few black players in the area.
Though her playing experiences were positive overall, she said there were times when she was targeted on the ice because of her race or gender. She said she can relate to what some players of color may be going through today.
In October, USA Hockey stiffened the penalty for using racial or derogatory slurs from a game misconduct to a match penalty, which carries a five-minute penalty, disqualification from the game in which it occurs, and suspension until a USA Hockey affiliate or junior league has conducted a hearing to review the incident.
"This is obviously an assumption, but when you see a minority player you kind of think to yourself that chances are they may have had to endure, face and power through a bit more adversity than your average youth player has had to face," Koelzer said. "Obviously, not to say that's it's the only thing I'm looking for and, obviously, that's not the only demographic of student athlete that I'm looking at. But it definitely piques my interest … when I see a minority hockey player out there. It makes me wonder 'What is their story, do we have similarities? What kind of character do they have?'"