Be Bold

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My hockey story started when I was six, when my mom started dating a police officer she met in the neighborhood, a man named Leslie. 

Leslie was your normal Midwestern guy — hardworking, hard-nosed, with a soft spot for shy kids and a sport he called “ice hockey.” But the thing about Leslie was, he had a really cool side hustle. 

On top of working long days and late nights, he twilighted as security for a professional hockey team at the local arena. This meant that, on top of his deep knowledge of and passion for hockey, he always had backstage passes and special access at the games.

When he invited me to my first game, I innocently replied, “What’s ice hockey?”

He gently smiled and said, “You’re about to find out, kiddo!” 

I remember standing in the tunnel at Gund Arena for the first time. Picture a small, six-year-old Black girl with braids, standing awestruck as these hulking giants wearing razor-sharp metal on their feet, boxing gloves on their hands and the coolest looking uniforms I’d ever seen saunter past me. Fully outfitted for battle, I remember thinking as they passed me, smiling and giving me knucks, the only thing they were missing was a full set of teeth. 

As a kid, you’re not really seeing so much as experiencing it. The sounds, the smells, the anticipation and excitement. As soon as that first puck hit the ice, I was hooked.

It was amazing, it was magic.  

As Leslie became my adopted dad, hockey became our thing. Every week I’d check the schedule to see when “our boys’” next game was and who we were facing off against. It was like Christmas morning for me every time we headed to the rink. 

I wouldn’t say I was poor growing up, because we were rich in love and family, but we didn’t have what most consider material wealth. From a young age, my mom showed me the value of hard work. She was constantly out and about working multiple jobs to make sure there was food on the table and that I was well taken care of. She sacrificed. A lot

So it was quite the transition as an only child, when Leslie took me to sit in the executive box to watch the games at Gund Arena. It felt like winning the lottery to six-year-old me. I’d made it to heaven. Comfy seats, unlimited snacks, all of the Arctic Shatter Powerades I could drink — and best of all, hockey.

My favorite part was visiting the locker room after each game to chat with the players. Guys like Jock Callander, Martin St. Louis and Brett Harkins were my real life heroes, and they called me by name and greeted me with a smile each time I walked in. 

“Hey, Blake, how’d we do tonight?!” Jock would say. 

Over time, I got to know some of them pretty well. I became their little super fan. Nothing made me happier than watching the Lumberjacks play, alongside my dad. It made me feel as though I was part of something bigger than myself, part of a team, and like I belonged for the very first time.  

I remember the exact day I made the decision. Leslie was driving us back from one of the games and after an excited conversation about how well our boys had played I turned to him and said, “I want to play hockey!” He was so excited he could barely contain himself.

Courtesy of Blake Bolden

I remember he was saying, “Are you kidding me?! Are you serious?!” 

I just nodded emphatically, and he took the first U-turn and drove straight to Play It Again Sports. 

Les took me down each aisle and grabbed one of everything. Pants that were too small, a stick that was too long, skates with no edges and a helmet from a previous generation. I looked crazy, to say the least, and awkward. But I was so happy and so desperately excited that you couldn’t tell me a thing. I felt so cool. 

I remember bringing all of my “new” used gear home to my mom, and she just raised her eyebrows and said, “So, we’re playing hockey now?”

As soon as we walked in the door, Leslie started figuring out how to get me on the ice. He found a rink 10 minutes from our house, and we were on the way there before sunrise the next day, pushing a cone around, looking ridiculous but feeling invincible. Picture something like a baby giraffe on skates, beaming ear to ear. 

After a couple of weeks I was finally able to let go of the cone and grab my stick. I constantly fantasized I was playing in the big game, pretending to be St. Louis dangling around two defenders or Harkins taking a clapper from the blue line. I was obsessed. It was all I wanted to do and all I wanted to be — a hockey player. I’d found my home.

This all came at the perfect time for me because I had been feeling lost. I was a little Black girl and an only child, without many friends, and there was a lot I felt that I couldn’t control in my life. I needed an anchor, I needed an identity. I needed something to concentrate on and be passionate about. A channel for my energy and a positive way to express myself and learn who I truly was and what I was capable of. Hockey became the thing that really grounded me. 

In three years, I went from not knowing how to skate to playing at the highest level of boys’ youth hockey. I wouldn’t say it came easy to me, but I loved the process of learning and improving each time I went to the rink. Additionally the same qualities that were getting me bullied in school, like having long “monkey arms” and big hands, seemed to actually play to my advantage on the ice, gripping my stick and poke checking. 

But one day something changed. I can almost pinpoint the exact moment when hockey became ... hard. 

It was when I started going to the camps. 

That’s where I first saw the other side of hockey. 

Courtesy of Blake Bolden

I remember my mom sent me to a very well-known skill development camp in Ontario when I was 10. Like most days at the rink, I was the only Black person there, but this time, I was also the only girl.

It was a two-week sleepaway camp. Every day we woke up, we worked out and we got on the ice. But the hardest part for me wasn’t the hockey. It was that no one wanted to be my friend. 

No one wanted to sit next to me for lunch. I was ignored in the games of tag. No one wanted to be in my group. If it wasn’t for the teasing I would have thought I was invisible.

My mom had done my hair in a braided protective hairstyle for the camp to make sure my mane stayed intact. The kids badgered me incessantly about it. 

“Why does your hair look like that?” 

“What’s wrong with you?”  

“You look funny,” and all of that. 

I was shy, I didn’t know how to fight back. But I did know how to play.

I learned to flip a switch. I built a defense mechanism. I felt like I couldn’t show any weakness or let them see me cry. Instead, I’d show them my power on the ice. I’d let my skating do the talking. I’d let my slap shot break the silence.

At my first AAA tryout I remember the head coach of the team telling me “I want you on this team, but these kids are the cream of the crop, and you’re the only girl, so don’t make my job easy.”

In other words, don’t make it easy to cut you because you’re the only girl. 

I took that as him saying, You better go out there and show me what you’re made of

Don’t be scared. Be BOLD

Play the way I knew how. Him saying that lit a fire under me that would last the entirety of my playing career. I made the team and showed that I belonged, though the boys were apprehensive at first. I had to earn their respect. Not only had they never played with a girl, they’d never had anyone with my skin color on the ice, as their teammate.

I learned to check, I began bantering and finding my voice, I became one of the boys and began to feel part of something. I made it. I’m here.

I knew I was different, But as long as I had a team, I could get through this.

That lit a fire under me that would last the entirety of my playing career.

Blake Bolden

Meanwhile, my dad would become our team’s equipment manager so he could keep an eye out for me. 

Leslie knew all the little things pros did, like having tape on hand, and having towels. The little snacks they ate. Like how he would always bring us Hubba Bubba bubblegum. And he’d tell us, “This is how pros are supposed to do it.” 

Basically, he brought that professional culture to my boys team, and they loved it. We all ate it up. I had the Cool Dad, with the good snacks.

The team would carpool together. And this was at a time when minivans were the greatest thing in the world because you could put a TV in there and bring an Xbox, or the old PS2, or a Nintendo. We’d play games the whole way up to Niagara, Quebec, Toronto or Ontario, somewhere.

I honestly love thinking about that time in my life because that was the most comfortable I ever felt in hockey. It wasn’t about me being a girl or being Black, I was just another player on the squad. That’s all I ever wanted. I didn’t want to be treated differently.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

But the truth is, I was treated differently, all the time, by the other teams.

I remember the first time I had to tell my mom about something that went down in the rink.

I was right in front of the net, protecting our goalie from someone trying to score on us.

Then, out of nowhere, he goes, “Get out of my face, n*****.”

I was so shocked. I said, “What did you say?”

My teammates rallied behind me immediately.

The refs intervened to make sure the kids stopped pushing and shoving, but they didn’t say anything to the guy who said that to me. There was no time to even process it. The puck was dropped right after that. And I just had to keep playing.

Me and my parents hadn’t really talked about what it meant for me as a Black girl to be playing hockey. I think they just didn’t want to scare me. But at that point, my mom had to address it.

That first night she sat me down and made some things clear.

She told me, “Baby, listen. I’m sorry this happened to you, but you need to know something. This is the reality of our world.” 

She also told me that the reason she named me Blake was so that nobody would discriminate against me on a job application or in college admissions just based on my name. It’s kind of racially ambiguous. On paper, people might assume I was a white male. 

That was really eye-opening for me. She’d felt as though she had to try to protect me from racism and sexism since the day I was born. She knew I’d face this and she’d tried to get ahead of it. She just didn’t know that I was going to have to face something like that so soon.

“You’re loved,” she told me. “You’re supported. The color of your skin doesn’t make you any less valuable. You should be proud of who you are, where you come from.”

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Here’s the thing, though — and I really want to make this clear. There’s two sides to a lot of things in life. There’s definitely two sides to hockey. For as much bullying as I faced, I also got a ton of support along the way, especially when I went to boarding school as a teenager. 

I was a high recruit for a prep school called Northwood School. I was the only Black person at that boarding school for four years straight in a tiny village in Lake Placid, New York, where the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” happened. 

I was so incredibly grateful for the support I got from the kids on my own team who always came to my defense and supported me no matter what. They became my protectors and my family on the ice.

Though I have been called names along this journey, bullied, looked at funny, and discriminated against unfairly, it is important to me to point out that none of this journey would have been possible if not for the guidance and love from many people with different skin colors and backgrounds. Wherever there is hate and ignorance there is also love, wisdom and acceptance to be found, and in the end, the power lies with the individual experiencing it, and what they wish to concentrate on. 

Never, ever give up your power.

Wherever there is hate and ignorance there is also love, wisdom and acceptance to be found.

Blake Bolden

When I got to Boston College, I was excited to be around women who were as dedicated to the game as me, in one of the greatest hockey towns in the country. I made myself a force to be reckoned with. I was dominant. 

I was a great collegiate athlete and felt like I deserved a shot at making the 2014 Olympic team. But in the end, that’s all it ended up being: A shot. I got cut.

Of course I wanted to be the first Black Olympic player to represent the United States. That’s what I told my mom as soon as I met Manon Rhéaume, the first woman to compete in the NHL. 

But that wasn’t my path, and for a while, I wanted to quit. I had to take some time to do some serious soul searching. I finished my degree and went back home to Ohio. I had many jobs, some in marketing, internships, coaching — the staple job choice when thinking your hockey career is over. But I knew there was still something missing. 

One afternoon, sitting in my mother’s home, I was contemplating what in the world I was doing with my life, as everyone I’m sure has experienced. A little voice told me something that would eventually bring me back to the hockey world. It said:

Blake, your job’s not done yet. 

I listened to my intuition and went back to Boston with some encouragement from my previous teammates and coaches, who told me not to give up. And I was taken in the first round in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League draft. 

It took some time to settle back into the game, to find that love and spark I had when I was a little girl. Luckily I had some great teammates along the way who kept me smiling. We were winning championships and changing the trajectory of women in our game. It started to feel good again. 

It wasn’t until a game in Toronto, though, that I really found my spark. One night, a bright-eyed, beautiful Black girl, around six years old, waited for me postgame with a colorfully glittered poster and my name in big bold letters. She handed me the poster to sign and told me I was her idol. 

In that moment, I saw myself. 

Little Blake standing in the Gund giving knucks to Jock Callander and St. Louis. My heart melted. 

Without even realizing it, I had gone on to become a figure in the sport. I read articles and hockey headlines that said things like: 

Blake Bolden was the first Black player taken in the first round in the CWHL Draft’s history.

She went on to become the first Black woman to compete professionally in the National Women’s Hockey League. 

Blake Bolden, Dawned the Jackie Robinson of Women’s Hockey.

Wow.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NHLI via Getty Images

But you know what’s more meaningful to me?

Now I’m actually getting to make a difference as the first Black female pro scout for the Los Angeles Kings in the NHL.

I quickly learned that this wasn’t just about me. This was about everybody else coming behind me. I decided to do more and be more for those girls who waited for me after the game. 

I got energy speaking to girls and boys of color and would always come away feeling inspired simply by being vulnerable with them. It changed my entire persona — my defense mechanism was gone. This was important to me. So important that I dedicated my life to it. 

Now, as I look back on the struggles I faced, I can’t help but smile.

Listen, if you go through your life with no heartbreak, no challenges to overcome, no barriers to break, what was it all for? What did you learn? It just made everything I would achieve that much sweeter.

Growing up, there wasn’t much representation in hockey for young Black kids. Now, we’ve turned to a new chapter. A chapter where being your authentic, unique, protective-hairstyle self, is all you need to be. 

A time when NHL franchises are hiring women in male-dominated fields. A time when the Los Angeles Kings value your input and honor your last name on their jerseys. A time when you are in control of your power and the way you choose to respond to ANY negativity or roadblocks that may come your way. 

I have one message for kids coming up in hockey today.

And it’s something I can say with great pride after everything I’ve overcome to be here:

BE TRUE.

BE YOU. 

BE BOLD.

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