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TIG Roundtable: A discussion about racial issues in women’s hockey

Michelle Jay

Inspired by D’Angelo Russell turning a question about his reaction to the January 6 insurrection at the U.S Capitol to the media, we here at The Ice Garden virtually sat down to answer a series of questions about race and women’s hockey.

Issues we have seen arise in media’s coverage of Black women in the sport:

Michelle Jay: Far too often, we see media coverage of Black women in hockey (or any sport or field to be honest) be about “the first” even when they’ve had numerous other accomplishments previously. Just Google Blake Bolden and look at all of the headlines written about her job as an NHL scout. While acknowledging the event makes sense, I feel like the resulting articles so often fall into talking about what it's like to be the first rather than why they deserve and are qualified for the job, or in the case of Bolden’s scouting job, the intricacies of it, especially during a pandemic.

Leighann Strollo: At this point in time, we see far more covert racism than we do outright racism in this space as well as a lot of others. Most often it’s not necessarily racial slurs or rules set in place to prevent people of color from participating. Instead, it’s pushing narratives that Black players on the ice are more aggressive than white players, it’s lack of appropriate equipment to care for a Black player’s hair or even a policy in place to deem their hair unprofessional, and most glaringly in the hiring processes across the board in hockey that often leaves out anyone that isn’t a white man. It makes it harder to spot or harder to make a big deal about but it’s there, and just because it isn’t a firing squad ready to charge or racist laws, we can not be any less quiet about it if we’re serious about making ‘Hockey Is for Everyone’ a reality and not just a meaningless tagline.

Angelica Rodriguez: My colleagues above have made great points about the issues regarding race in women’s hockey, but I think it bears talking about the underlying biases and bigotry that white players have displayed, as well as the reluctance by those covering the sport to address those issues with players directly. I know there have been times when I have neglected to speak candidly with players I know have had negative opinions about Black men who have been killed by police, for example. Until recently, I’ve also seen a general silence amongst hockey writers regarding how close women’s hockey is to media outlets or people who have espoused or supported bigoted opinions. The time for that has passed. If we’re truly going to progress to the next level, we need to face those opinions and those issues head-on.

Anne Tokarski: I think there are a lot of issues with the framing of stories about Black women in the sport of hockey. As Michelle and Leighann both mentioned, there’s always the focus on Blake Bolden being “the first,” when that’s something that’s already been discussed extensively. Those pieces are great, don’t get me wrong, but I also think it’s important to dissect what biases led to an incredibly over-qualified woman like Bolden being the first, and what barriers prevented other qualified Black women from coming before her. I also agree with Angelica in that there’s a lot of racism and bigotry perpetuated by white players, white media, and white staff. It’s definitely never comfortable to ask questions of players who might support bigoted platforms or have beliefs that don’t align with the concept of “Hockey Is for Everyone” that so many organizations claim to uphold, but I don’t think that makes it any less necessary. This is something I’m personally working on too.

Our thoughts on how we think the sport can improve:

Gabriella Fundaro: I think that in theory, there is probably a large group of players, coaches, and staff involved in women’s hockey who would say that they’re not racist. I think it’s also safe to say that many of those people still find it easier to overlook racism, maybe out of convenience or because they want to maintain the status quo.

I know there are BIPOC who don’t feel welcome in women’s hockey. That is extremely damning of the culture in this sport, and for myself and other white people especially, it’s on us to create a space where they do feel welcome. There is no excuse for not doing the work. We know that there’s been a big push for education happening, and there are so many resources out there for everyone involved in the sport to do the learning. But that is really only a small percentage of the work that needs to be done. We need to be willing to internalize that learning. We need to listen to BIPOC, especially when they are calling us out to be better. And we need to actively support BIPOC and take a staunch stand against racism always—not just when it is convenient.

Leighann Strollo: The first thing that comes to mind to say to this is to be uncomfortable. There is clearly a problem with hockey culture and sports culture as a whole, even in the smaller crevices that some thing are more inclusive or are a ‘safe haven’ from the old boy’s club. We can think certain spaces, like women’s hockey, may be better but they still aren’t what they should be and the longer we stay in our comfort zone of those ideals, the longer it’s going to remain not being the best it could be. We all need to get uncomfortable and that doesn’t just mean watching a few movies on Black trauma or donating to BGHC once. It means feeling shame, and humility, and privilege, and then taking steps to understand how to use those uncomfortable feelings to help others.

On a larger scale, we need to push those in power to make hockey a more accessible game. It can’t continue to be this expensive, geographically restricted, and racist. Those things need to come from the top but it should be all of our voices speaking out to accept nothing less.

Michelle Jay: To go off what Gabs said and something that has been often repeated, people in the sport need to move from not just being racists to being actively anti-racist. We’ve seen real proof of what that work looks like by white players like Rebecca Morse, who actively acknowledged her work as she kneeled alongside Saroya Tinker in Lake Placid. But it needs go beyond a few players or a few staff members into a large-scale effort of white players doing the work.

Tinker said in her interview with Sportsnet that while hockey is for everyone “at the end of the day, there are specific communities within the hockey community that still do not feel welcome in this sport.” Allies need to take on the responsibilities that’s often placed on Black people in the sport to make the BIPOC and other communities feel like hockey is for everyone. Until then are taken, the sports going to continue to stall and we’ll see the same issues, especially the ones we’ve seen in the last few weeks.

Angelica Rodriguez: It’s not enough just to have more diversity in women’s hockey. While yes, that is an important piece of the puzzle, ultimately the entire system needs to be changed to make sure those diverse voices aren’t only brought up during a certain month or for a certain purpose. Tokenism is a very real issue in every workplace, not just within the realm of a hockey arena or a team’s front office, and we need to work to make sure we don’t: a. erase the identity and/or lived experience of a Black player in this sport; b. rely on them to be the “gateway” to the Black experience (or Latinx experience, or queer experience, etc.).

It’s important to remember that these athletes are human beings above all else. They already perform a tremendous amount of mental and emotional labor outside the rink — it’s up to us to learn from them, but also to help ourselves and lessen that burden once they step into the locker room or onto the ice. Non-black hockey fans, media, and those within their respective organizations need to utilize the resources at hand in this age of information and really strive to challenge ourselves and each other to put egos and personal feelings to the side.

When you feel a teammate might need to be educated on why that phrase is racist, or why maybe you shouldn’t support that platform, step up and be the one to educate. Don’t leave it to your coach, your GM, your captain, or even worse, your minority teammate who might be hurt but afraid to show it. Hockey is a team sport, and I personally refuse to accept any longer the “well that’s them, not me, I can’t be held responsible” sentiment amongst some women’s hockey players when it comes to this. Everyone wears the same crest and works toward the same goal. Step up, be responsible, and have the tough conversations

Meredith Foster: The culture and its athletes - particularly the white affluent women who make up the bulk of the elite ranks - needs to be willing to take a long look at how they’ve benefited from oppressive structures. This is much easier said than done, even more so in a culture that’s so heavily steeped in politeness and ‘doing things the right way,’ and ‘how things have always been done.’

White people are very, very good at deflecting hard and uncomfortable conversations under the guise of politeness, and this flourishes in hockey, regardless of player gender. Those in the sport who’ve benefited the most from NOT having these conversations need to understand it’s not about them: it’s about making a safer environment for their teammates.

Mike Murphy: We talk a lot about how women’s hockey is more inclusive than men’s hockey — and it is, in many ways — but the bottom line is that it is not inclusive enough. There’s a lot of work to be done. Hockey has an inherent problem with privilege because of its cost and the crushing systemic racism that exists in the United States and Canada. That is one of the reasons why BIPOC are uncommon in this sport.

How do we combat that and make sure that we are fighting the good fight? I think the answer is simple. We do the work. We listen. We learn. We amplify the voices of those who are on the front lines working to make this better and we support them — people like Renee Hess, Saroya Tinker, and Erica Ayala. As members of the media, we can do a lot to make a difference. We can ask questions that need to be asked about privilege and racism. We can also celebrate and draw attention to those who are working tirelessly to make a difference.

What we want to do to make women’s hockey a better place:

Gabriella Fundaro: I think it’s really important to empower Black players and Black folks in hockey and follow their lead (without simply standing in silence behind them). It’s also really clear to me that people are totally comfortable being racist in these spaces, while BIPOC do not feel welcome at all, and we need to change that. For example, certain players (not a short list) felt comfortable explicitly endorsing a video that called for Saroya Tinker, a Black player, to be put in jail. Despite this being an inherently racist and violent statement, it’s obvious that they were confident they wouldn’t face any consequences for doing so. Why is that? Why do people in our community feel comfortable glossing over (at best) and amplifying (at worst) overt racism? We need to make it abundantly clear that there is no tolerance for being racist in women’s hockey, including and especially when that racism and harassment is targeted at a Black player.

Michelle Jay: As the site manager of The Ice Garden, I strive to make sure TIG is an active participant in making the sport a better place. I seek out advice from people like Angelica Rodriguez and listen to her suggestions and ideas, like this roundtable. I want to make sure we are using our sizable reach and standing to amply voices, call out those who need it, and do the work. I know we only scratch the surface right now and I’ve pledged myself to being a better site. I don’t know what that looks like but I promise we’re trying.

On a personal level, to be honest, I consider myself a novice in this arena. So for me I want to continue to learn how to be a better ally and amplify Black voices but also figure out how to use my voice and position to make people uncomfortable and help spur change.

Angelica Rodriguez: Well, for me it starts with saying three simple words: Black Lives Matter. In all arenas, not just the hockey arena. I think we all know how I feel about how the NWHL handled their attempt to “End Racism,” and honestly I want to hear them say those three words and stand by them. I want it to be clear that I wholeheartedly support anyone who uses their voice and platform to uplift and educate, and I will do everything I can to call out anything I see that can be done better. That includes asking those harder questions of athletes and of executives within the sport. I can no longer stand by the sidelines — as someone who has loved hockey for half her life by this point, I need to do better, and I need everyone around me to as well. I also need everyone to understand and learn when to speak up, and when to amplify the voices of those who need amplifying. Sometimes it’s not about being the loudest voice in the room.

And for those who need a little more education: my DMs are open. My replies are open. Reach out to me. I’ve had amazing conversations with women’s hockey players behind the scenes and I’m open to more of that. This sport hasn’t always loved me, but I love it, and I always try to push what I love to improve and flourish.

Mike Murphy: I want to put my pen to work celebrating the achievements and talents of Black and BIPOC players. I want to use my platform to amplify the voices that have been so valuable to me in acknowledging my privilege in this space as a white man. I can’t allow myself to feel like I’ve done enough after making a few donations and buying a t-shirt. If this really matters to me, I need to continue to take action and make this a part of me. So, that is what I am trying to do this month and every month.

Anne Tokarski: Amplification is huge, but like Angelica said, it doesn’t end there. There has to be meaningful dialogue that follows the amplification of Black voices, and right now, it doesn’t look like there is much of that when we see players and staff openly supporting people or platforms with long-standing histories of racism while failing to acknowledge that history. I think part of making women’s hockey a better and safer place for BIPOC athletes involves asking the uncomfortable questions and making sure no one — player, media, or staff — is comfortable with their complicity in upholding systemic racism.

How we are participating in BGHC’s Black History Month Act of Service:

Michelle Jay: I’ll start here, by doing something that was pointed on Twitter as a step to take if you’re in a position similar to me of not know what to do: publicizing my donations. Black Girl Hockey Club is an obvious answer to this, as is Tinker’s GoFundMe for the organization. I’m also a huge fan of the Loveland Foundation’s Therapy Fund. I’ve given $50 to each this month, and pledged to find more room in my personal budget to give on a regular basis.

Meredith Foster: The Black Girl Hockey Club and the Black Mental Health Alliance are doing great work nationwide and I’ve donated to both this month and plan to again in the future. In addition, I believe in using my money locally as well, so I’ve been making an effort to explore and buy from local Black-owned businesses.

Angelica Rodriguez: BGHC is an amazing group that will always have my love and support, but it doesn’t end there. I plan on supporting inner-city hockey organizations, not just with my words, but if possible, with my dollars as well. Moreover, in my research I haven’t quite noticed a whole lot of inner-city programs where I live in Buffalo — a shocking revelation considering we’re supposedly all about hockey here. Maybe that needs to change.

Anne Tokarski: I’m working on being more involved with Black Girl Hockey Club, including donating at least half of my stipend to the organization each month. The sport of hockey would not be where it is today without the hard work of all those involved with BGHC, and it’s important that we help fund their mission. Another great organization to support is Hockey Fans for Change (Twitter, website), a group that’s currently campaigning to get Herb Carnegie into the Hockey Hall of Fame, amongst other initiatives.

Gabriella Fundaro: Like so many of my colleagues, I plan to support Black Girl Hockey Club and the incredible work BGHC is doing in the hockey community. But I also want to challenge myself to step outside of the hockey sphere by supporting organizations like the Black Trans Advocacy Coalition and the Trans Women of Color Collective.