William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past nine years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles Saroya Tinker, a rookie defenseman for the Metropolitan Riveters of the National Women's Hockey League.
Saroya Tinker plans on packing a full suitcase for the 2021 National Women's Hockey League season, which is going to be played in a bubble in Lake Placid, New York, from Jan. 23-Feb. 5 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
"I think I'm probably taking paint brushes and canvases just because we've been told we've got a lot of alone time and I paint in my spare time," said Tinker, a rookie defenseman for the Metropolitan Riveters. "I'm also bringing along my social justice T-shirts and my other advocacy T-shirts to put out during the games to wear and represent and show that these issues still matter, and this is what we're still fighting for."
The 22-year-old, who was the No. 4 pick in the 2020 NWHL Draft, has quickly become one of the league's prominent voices for diversity and inclusion and social justice, using her new status as a professional to publicly speak out against racism in hockey and society and share her bittersweet experience of being a Black woman in a predominately white sport.
"After being drafted, I kind of found that I have a new platform and following," she said. "After playing hockey for so long, I didn't really love the sport anymore, but I also recognized there's an area for me to help girls behind me and help girls that I felt like when I was that young and didn't have that mentorship or those friends at the rink."
Tinker has transitioned her activism into action.
She started her own mentorship program which currently has five girls ages 11 to 17, and also recently joined the board of the Columbus Ice Hockey Club, an affiliate of the NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone initiative, and is working with its girls hockey team.
"I mentor them based on whatever they're going through, whether they need help with recruiting and contacting coaches or if they're having trouble finding allies on their team or they're not sure how to talk to coaches about racially-charged incidents, and just all around how to develop themselves to reach that level they want to reach," Tinker said.
Tinker didn't envision having this much on her plate after graduating from college. But then, she never imagined that she would still be playing hockey.
In four seasons at Yale University, Tinker scored 31 points (five goals, 26 assists) in 121 games as a stay-at-home defenseman and led the team in blocked shots as a sophomore, junior and senior.
However, she said her passion waned, crushed under the weight of years of being subjected to racist comments and attitudes from coaches, opposing players, teammates and fans.
"I felt I didn't have many allies on my team at Yale," Tinker said.
She credits Mark Bolding, who was hired as Yale's coach in April 2019, with helping reignite her love for the game. Bolding said it was a matter of communicating and listening.
"We feel like we have a diverse team with players from a lot of different countries and nationalities, but in the grand scheme of things, hockey is still a very predominately white sport," Bolding said. "So some of the issues that [Tinker] and the others had was just listening time. What's going on? What do you think? And give them more involvement in trying to fix maybe what was broken or not feeling right."
When Tinker graduated, Bolden suggested that she turn pro, and the Riveters are glad that she did. They are counting on her to help improve the defense, which allowed 91 goals in 24 games last season (third-most in the league).
"Last season, the majority of the goals scored against us were from in front of the net area and we were missing that size and strength there," Riveters coach Ivo Mocek said
Bolding thinks Tinker (5-foot-9) will thrive with the Riveters because "she slows the game down, she thinks it and she's imposing with her tall frame and strength."
Now, Tinker is ready to prove them right.
In preparation for the season, when she wasn't painting portraits of popular figures like singer Lauryn Hill and the late rapper Tupac Shakur, she was working out or boxing with her boyfriend, Dante Djan, a quarterback for the University of Guelph.
Tinker said she's looking forward to starting her professional career in Lake Placid and thinks that having all six NWHL teams competing under one roof for the Isobel Cup will help boost the league.
"I think it will be all around a good experience just to be around other players like myself and to promote women's hockey within the bubble and gain that level of respect in the fan base that we need," Tinker said. "I think the bubble can help us do that."