William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past seven years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March and will be writing about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles Ngozi Ukazu and Gaby Epstein, women of color who write LGBTQ-themed hockey webcomics and books.
Ngozi Ukazu and Gaby Epstein are unicorns -- women of color who live in football-obsessed Texas and illustrate and write hockey webcomics and books with an LGBTQ perspective.
"It is extremely weird," said Ukazu, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. "We're very different from your typical hockey fans. But the number of people who I've met at comic conventions who are every shape and size, from every place in the world, those are hockey fans. It's interesting that these fans aren't as visible."
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The two Austin residents are reaching and resonating with that audience by combining their love of hockey, illustration and support for the LGBTQ community to individually produce successful hockey comics.
Ukazu is the author of the "Check, Please!" a series she began in 2013 that centers around Eric "Bitty" Bittle, a gay former junior figure skating champion from Georgia who loves baking pies and plays hockey on his northern college's team.
"Check, Please! Book 1: #Hockey" tops Amazon's best seller list in the teen and young adult hockey fiction category. Ukazu made a splash in the comics and book publishing world when she raised $398,520 through a Kickstarter campaign in 2016 to help pay to print the books, make promotional jerseys and handle shipping costs.
Inspired by Ukazu, Epstein created "Breaking the Ice," a webcomic series about teenage hockey players and their romantic endeavors off the ice. She debuted online and at FlameCon, the world's largest queer comic convention, two weeks ago in New York and quickly sold out 200 copies.
Epstein is in talks over whether to continue the series on the web or focus on print.
"We have so little representation in general, and it means a lot to see yourself represented," said Epstein, who is gay and the daughter of a Chilean mother and a Jewish father from central Pennsylvania.
The comics have struck a chord and are creating a new generation of hockey fans, according to Rachel Donner, a co-commissioner for the recreation league of the New York City Gay Hockey Association.
"I know a lot of people that started reading 'Check, Please!,' in particular, who were not hockey people at all," said Donner, who owns comic art panels drawn and autographed by Ukazu. "Having read that, they've gotten into hockey a little bit. They've started thinking about college hockey or women's hockey. And then it's kind of like a domino effect where they're, like, 'Oh then maybe I'll check out the NHL too.' I really think she's creating hockey fans where there might not have been before and I think she's also creating comic fans where there might not have been before of people who are into hockey."
Epstein and Ukazu became hockey fans through different paths. Epstein, 26, learned to play the game as a teenager growing up in suburban Philadelphia.
"I did a tryout for hockey and I still was on the fence about it, and then I saw a 'Simpson's' episode," she said. "There's an episode where Lisa gets to be a goalie. I know its fantasy, and I knew that as a kid, too. But just having that normalized, having that broadcast on Fox TV made me, like, 'Oh, well, If Lisa on 'The Simpsons' does it, then I can do it."
Epstein became a goalie for the Mighty Moose, a local girls hockey program, and played through high school and college at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her passion for the game and illustration converged when she told a television executive that she had an idea for a kid's hockey story.
"We had an exec come in who used to work for 'Family Guy' and stuff and he really liked the idea, so he helped me make a pitch to Nickelodeon for a show," she said. "In doing that, it really made me remember how much I love the sport and how many weird personalities you meet in it. Nothing happened with the pitch, but I hung on to the story. Now that I've finally got my feet on the ground as far as an illustration career, I've been making comics about it."
Ukazu, 28, took a more academic route to the game. She began researching hockey and its culture for a screenplay she was working on during her senior year at Yale University.
"I decided to write about a hockey player, also in his senior year, who falls in love with his best friend, who happens to be a boy," she said. "In order to do that, being a black woman from Texas, first generation, I had to throw myself into the research. The unintended effect is I became a hockey fan because I was watching interviews, I was going to Yale hockey games. When I came out of that research period, I was just a bona fide hockey fan. There's nothing more exciting than the weirdness, excitement and honor of hockey."
Ukazu said she's about to move on from hockey -- at least illustrating and writing about it. She'll produce the final installment of "Check, Please!" next year when Bittle graduates from college.
"My dad really wants Bitty to have a Year 5, to join professional hockey," Ukazu said. "He thinks it means ending the comic is me quitting my job. But I have other projects, other sports projects."