I used to play angry.
Sometimes I still do.
But I used to, too.
You never would have guessed it if you’d met me when I was a little girl. Back then I was shy. I wasn’t trying to make much of a fuss. I played hockey because my dad did. And when he took me out onto the frozen pond down the street from our house in Oshawa — and he laced up my skates, held my hand and showed me what to do — I fell in love with skating right away. It wasn’t hockey that I loved — at least, not right then — it was skating. There was a freedom to it, a pureness. I had these plastic, white and blue skates that were nothing special, but when they were on my feet ... I felt like I could do anything I wanted.
Skating in Canada is its own language. It doesn’t matter what you look like, or who you are, if you can skate — you can skate.
Hockey isn’t like that.
Hockey saw me — specifically, the white people in hockey saw me. To them, it mattered what I looked like. They saw my Black skin.
And they judged me.
From the time I started playing on organized teams at six or seven years old, I felt like I didn’t belong. I experienced microaggressions. My teammates would do little things, like not allowing me to sit in a certain part of the locker room, or not including me in things after we left practice.
And before I go on, you should know that this wasn’t in 1980.
This was just 15 years ago, in Canada.
These acts were small, but they were also incredibly powerful — and their effects just compounded. Day after day I was reminded that there was a difference between me and my teammates. My parents experienced it, too. My mom, who is Ukrainian, was sitting in the stands one day watching a game when another parent asked her which daughter was hers. She pointed to me, number 71. The other parent scanned the ice, saw me and said, “Ah, I see. Crossbreeds make the best athletes these days.”
How do you think someone who sees others like that — who talks like that — is going to raise their kids to act?
I didn’t understand why that sort of thoughtless racial harassment was seemingly so commonplace.
It didn’t feel like hockey wanted me.
I'd show up to the rink and I'd get excited just from the smell of the rubber, the fresh ice, the sweat — but then I'd think, Do I really want to be here?
And when I was 12, any ideas I had about feeling differently were hammered home in the locker room of a Canlan Ice rink in Oshawa. My team was just finishing up a practice and everyone was laughing about something that had happened out on the ice. I stood up to add on to the joke, but as I started to talk, another girl stood up.
She looked at me right in the eyes and said, “Shut up, you stupid n*****.”
There was no hesitation, no wavering in her voice. She just said it. Clearly and with purpose.
A 12-year-old girl said that to me.
Nobody, including our trainer (who was also in the room), knew what to do. I just sat back down — I couldn’t really wrap my head around what had happened. There was like this ... this burning feeling inside me. To be on the other end of such hate, for no reason — I couldn’t just take that in stride and move on.
But the thing is, that’s exactly what hockey wants people to do.
At the end of the day, my trainer basically just shrugged her shoulders — there were zero repercussions for that girl. I had to sit on the same bench with her, game in and game out.
My parents told me to shake it off. I think they were having a hard time rationalizing what had happened, too. And at my age in Canada, hockey wasn’t just for fun, you know? Our team of girls was just five, six, seven, years away from possibly receiving scholarships to major college programs, or invitations to national team selection camps. My family knew what the repercussions could be for us if we rocked the boat.
If you’ve spent any time around the game of hockey, you’ve heard the saying, “Shut up and skate.” Those four words — and that idea — are rooted deeply in the misogyny and racism that have plagued our game. And they protect those who want to keep the sport of hockey to themselves.
I guess the truth is that I never really felt welcome at an ice rink. I never felt like I belonged. That day in 2010 only reaffirmed it.
Hockey saw me — specifically, the white people in hockey saw me. To them, it mattered what I looked like. They saw my Black skin.- Saroya Tinker
You see, I grew hateful of hockey. I HATED that I loved it — or at least that I wanted to keep playing it. And I used that hate to motivate myself, to work harder. I played hockey after that like I was going to force the game to accept me. I wasn’t going to let it win. And so I pushed myself beyond limits I didn’t know I had.
I dreamed of playing for the Canadian national team at the Olympics and winning gold like so many of my heroes.
That felt, at least to me, like the ultimate way to prove the game of hockey wrong.
So I did my best to go above and beyond in high school, and when Yale offered me the opportunity to play in college, I knew I had to go. A woman’s road to having a career in hockey is not straightforward, and more important, it definitely is not lucrative. There are no big signing bonuses waiting for us when we get to the pro level.
I can’t put into words everything I got out of my experience at Yale. It was truly life-changing, and my time there will carry me for the rest of my days, I know that. But one thing I want to mention is that at Yale, for the first time in my hockey career, I got a brand new pair of skates.
Like it might not seem like much to you. But NEW skates?
My whole life I’d had hand-me-downs or used ones.
And it kind of hit me then, that the sport of hockey for little girls — especially girls of color, many of whom come from middle- to low-income households — is incredibly inaccessible.
Hockey is so expensive in our country.
A top-end pair of skates will cost you over $1,000 today.
A thousand dollars.
I look back on my journey to Yale and I wish I had had access to newer equipment, cheaper teams and more ice time. And as long our sport operates out of place of greed, and doesn’t work to uplift those who need it most, we are going to be fail so, so many people.
And this, right here, is one of the many reasons that Black Girl Hockey Club is so damn important.
My whole life I’d had hand-me-downs or used ones.- Saroya Tinker
I was introduced to BGHC over a year ago when my mom was looking up different clubs for women in hockey. Obviously, I’d never had that type of community for Black women who loved hockey when I was growing up. So learning more about BGHC, it just really spoke to me right away. Renee Hess, the club’s founder, really puts her heart and soul into it every day, and she is one of the most amazing people in our game — without a doubt.
She announced my pick at the 2020 NWHL draft, and our relationship has only grown since then.
There are so many great things that BGHC is doing for the BIPOC community. And for me — as I got to know Renee and everyone who volunteers to help the club — I learned that I could lean on my personal experiences of having grown up playing the game with dreams of being the best in the world, and use that passion to help others.
That’s why I’ve been volunteering with the scholarship committee. We've been able to give scholarships — of $5,000, $3,000, and $1,000 — to Black girls playing hockey who are between the ages of nine and 18. The goal is to help cover costs that range from team fees, to new equipment, to travel costs. Our scholarships are available to all Black girls, anywhere in the world.
This, to me, is a tangible way that we can make a difference in girls’ lives and ease the burdens of playing hockey.
I look at my life, and my journey, and I wish more girls could experience what I have. I’m one of the lucky ones who had parents who could support her, who wasn’t completely forced out of the game by hateful teammates. I know that’s not the case for everyone.
Money can definitely help, especially in the short-term, but to truly make our game more welcoming and, in the end, more accessible, change needs to take place throughout the sport. That’s why BGHC started the Get Uncomfortable Campaign, which aims to create a set of recommendations and ideas on how all those involved in hockey, at all levels, can meaningfully contribute to the movement against discimination and the oppression of BIPOC communities in society.
But for me, what this campaign truly means is dialogue.
It means ACTUALLY getting uncomfortable.
I think back to last year, when I moved to New Jersey to join the Riveters in the NWHL, and our captain, Madison Packer, called a team meeting to talk about some of the things relating to racial injustice that were happening in the U.S. and around the world. And I’m sure for some of the women in our room, it was an uncomfortable conversation. But that was the point. We — as an entire team — talked about discrimination, kneeling for anthems, and a whole bunch of other issues. Girls who were part of the LGBTQ+ community spoke about what was on their mind, and I was able to address the room, as well.
And that was the first time in my whole life that I’d had a team that was willing to listen to me talk about my experiences, my feelings. It was such a powerful thing to go through them with my teammates, and I know it wasn’t easy for everyone, but I truly believe it is one of the most important things any group of people can do.
It doesn’t matter if you’re with pro athletes, with coworkers, or you’re just sitting down with your kids at the dinner table — TALK about these things. They matter.
And Black Girl Hockey Club matters, too. The work that Renee and the whole team are doing is changing the sport before our eyes. There’s a long, long way to go, but I know that nothing in hockey comes easy.
There are tough, honest discussions that the sport will need to have over the coming years. Band-aids will need to be ripped off, and there will be pushback, undoubtedly, from those who — out of fear, out of confusion, and out of hate — don’t want to see the game change.
But somewhere in the world, there is a little Black girl lacing up a pair of skates for the first time.
She has no idea what’s ahead of her.
And she deserves to know that the game of hockey is for her.