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Penguins pull out all the stops for Black Hockey History Day

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

As members of the Black Girl Hockey Club were in Suite 66 on Friday morning while taking a tour of PPG Paints Arena, a familiar face walked by on his way to the locker room ahead of the Penguins' game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

"We almost all passed out when Sidney Crosby walked by," said Leah Fields-Nester.

"It was pandemonium," laughed Janair Wilkerson.

It was the perfect start to 'Black Hockey History Day,' which was officially proclaimed by Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto during a full day of activities highlighted by the NHL's Black Hockey History mobile museum stopping at Miller African Centered Academy in the Hill District.

Video: Penguins Black Hockey History Day

"This is truly a historic truck and it's a historic day," Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse said. "We're here to celebrate some of the history of black players in the NHL, but more importantly, to talk about what we're going to do to enrich that history and to make it much deeper and much wider. I think we are standing at the front end of what can be truly remarkable growth of hockey in the inner-city and minority communities."

The Black Girl Hockey Club was in Pittsburgh as special guests of the Penguins. After a buffet breakfast followed by the tour, they bussed over to the elementary school to help run hockey clinics in the gym with the students.

As Renee Hess, the founder and executive director of the Black Girl Hockey Club, stood and watched as her fellow members went through drills with the children, she couldn't keep the smile off her face.

"You'll see me throughout the day just standing back and smiling, and that's because when I first started going to hockey games, I never saw two black women together at a hockey game until I came with the Black Girl Hockey Club," she said. "It was honestly a selfish thing. I wanted to have friends to go to hockey games with. And now I have 50 of them just hanging out in Pittsburgh."

Despite being from Riverside, California, Hess is a huge Penguins fan - and her love for the game began right here in Pittsburgh about a decade ago when she saw the team playing on TV while eating dinner at a restaurant.

"I was like, 'What is this? Why are you guys watching a hockey game on television?' Because you don't see that in California where I'm from," Hess said. "The bartender was like, 'We're a hockey town.' On the way back to our hotel that same night, there was a Pens game getting out and I saw all of these Penguins fans and I remembered seeing the game on TV and thinking 'Okay, note to self, this really is a hockey town.'"

From there, Hess wanted to learn more - but didn't know where to start. So she reached out to a friend who taught her the basics of the game and went from there.

"It was so funny because I started going to games and I was like, 'I'm just going to follow the Penguins, it looks like they're a really fun team,'" Hess said. "Sidney Crosby is really good, he skates super fast, he's fun to watch. Then 2016 came and I was like, 'I guess I'm just going to root for them in the playoffs, I don't know what this is all about.' Then they won, and I was like 'Oh, I'm IN it (laughs).'"

Hess started the Black Girl Hockey Club in 2018, with the mission being to inspire and sustain passion for the game of hockey within the black community. It has grown into a national organization that had women from all over the country travel to Pittsburgh this weekend.

"It's just been such a wonderful day with these women," said Teresa Shine, who lives in Dormont but is originally from McKeesport. "I'm surprised that a lot of them flew in, which is awesome. I want to make sure that Pittsburgh women have the opportunity to do this because this feels the most comfortable for me. It was awesome seeing all these ladies here. These are true hockey fans. I'm like, I want to get more involved with this. Hopefully we can get more traction here in Pittsburgh. That would be awesome."

In addition to seeing Crosby, Shine and the rest of the Black Girl Hockey Club loved spending time with the students at Miller African Centered Academy.

"They get to see people that look like them enjoying the sport," Fields-Nester said. "I know it's an overused thing, but representation really matters. I think this is such a great thing to be here. I'm so excited."

Once the kids finished in the gym, they went outside to where the NHL's Black Hockey History mobile museum was parked in front of the school. There, Kwame Mason - the director of the 2016 documentary 'Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future,' which tells the history of black hockey players in the U.S. and Canada and co-curator of the museum - took the children on tours in groups.

"As the NHL has said, 'Hockey is for everyone,'" said Tracey McCants Lewis, the Penguins' deputy general counsel and director of HR. "And so we just wanted to expose children in the African-American community to hockey and to let them know that they can play hockey. Exposure builds interest, and then from that interest - seeing black players in that museum and seeing that representation - those kids are going to look and see black hockey players. 

"We have female black hockey players here. A little girl can look and say, 'I can play hockey too! If she plays hockey, I can do it.' That's what we want to build. We want to build momentum. At the end of this weekend kids will see that they can play hockey, be a hockey fan and even work for a hockey club. Representation matters."

The mobile museum was packed with photos, descriptions and artifacts looking back at history makers and Stanley Cup champions while looking ahead to the next generation of stars. The highlight for most of the kids was getting to try on hockey gloves at the side-by-side locker stalls of former Penguins Trevor Daley, Ryan Reaves and Jarome Iginla.

While the kids were exploring the museum, Peduto, Morehouse, state representative Jake Wheatley, councilman Daniel Lavelle and NHL executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs Kim Davis all stepped up to say a few words.

"I think this is a great step forward to show the things that the Penguins are doing to try to really integrate themselves with this neighborhood and this community," Wheatley said.

After finishing up at the school, the mobile museum made its way to PPG Paints Arena, where it was free and open to the public from 4-7 p.m. The day concluded with the Black Girl Hockey Club taking over section 120 for the game.

"I honestly can't believe it's happening," Fields-Nester said of the day. "I know I'm going to wake up tomorrow morning and be like, 'Did yesterday really happen?' I just can't even believe it. It's crazy."

And it doesn't end there. On Saturday, the Penguins and the Black Girl Hockey Club are co-hosting a special screening of 'Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future' at 11 a.m. at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center.

"What the Penguins are doing in the community today and tomorrow to kick off Black History Month, I really think they're setting a bar for what the clubs can and should be doing with the black communities in their area," Hess said.

"I feel like right now, it's a good time to be a black hockey fan because the NHL, they started their mobile museum last year, they actively started celebrating Black History Month. That was just amazing. After a few years of wondering where are all the black hockey fans, now it's nice to be able to be a vehicle to bring that all together."

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