Column: Blake Bolden continues her pioneering role in hockey as scout for Kings
From the moment Blake Bolden took to the ice at 7 years old and fell in love with skating and the creativity of hockey, she has repeatedly proved people wrong.
For years, she was the only girl on a triple-A boys’ team in her hometown of Cleveland and one of two girls in the league. She also was conscious of being black in an overwhelmingly white sport, though she saw that as incidental. She wanted to stand out because she was good — and she was.
“My teammates were super respectful. I just had to earn their trust and show my skills so they could trust me on the ice,” she said. “After that, I think it was smooth sailing with them. Other teams, mmm, not so much, especially when you’ve got a girl beating up on them. It turned out sometimes pretty nasty but I grew out of it.”
She excelled for four years at Boston College and was the team’s captain as a senior, the same season she was chosen the Hockey East conference defenseman of the year. She went on to win a championship in the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League, where she was the league’s first American-born black player.
In 2017, Bolden moved to San Diego, where she coaches teams in the San Diego Junior Gulls’ girls’ hockey programs. She continued her career by spending a season in Switzerland and earned a championship in the National Women’s Hockey League, where she was the first black player and defender of the year in 2019 while as a member of the Buffalo Beauts.
Emergency backup goalie Dave Ayres made eight saves in relief of Carolina’s two injured netminders in the Hurricanes’ 6-3 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Those accomplishments have brought her the rare and precious opportunity to prove people right.
Bolden, 28, was hired by the Kings as a scout for the Pacific region. It’s believed that she is the first black female professional scout in the NHL and is among the few women who scout for NHL clubs, joining Hockey Hall of Fame member Cammi Granato of the incoming Seattle expansion team and Noelle Needham, an amateur scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hayley Wickenheiser, also a Hockey Hall of Famer, is assistant director of player development for the Maple Leafs.
“She’s played at the highest levels and has a real good understanding of the game as it relates to her hockey sense and knowledge,” said Nelson Emerson, the Kings’ director of player personnel. “She’s been on the job for the past two months and has been attending games and filing reports and was part of our pro scouting meetings earlier this month. She’s off to a great start and we’re very encouraged by what she’s contributing already and excited to see her advance even further within her role.”
Bolden focuses on the American Hockey League from her base in San Diego, though she has traveled to San Jose and Bakersfield. “It’s not anything I’ve ever dreamed,” she said of her job, “because I don’t think I saw anybody in the position that I could say, ‘Oh, maybe I want to be a scout.’
“But you can see it, you can be it, like Cammi Granato is a scout. For myself and the Kings organization, I think it’s just another steppingstone for women to get into new opportunities and take off on whatever career path they’d like to follow in a potentially male-dominated area.”
Bolden was at Staples Center earlier this season with a group from Black Girl Hockey Club, a community of black women who share their passion for the sport, when she was introduced to Kings President Luc Robitaille. Their conversation led to interviews and employment, to her surprise. “Just to have that open-mindedness and the foresight to ask me if I’d even be interested in scouting,” she said in praising the Kings’ willingness to be unconventional.
Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL, knows a pioneer when he sees one. And O’Ree, who has spent time with Bolden this month visiting schools and promoting the NHL’s Black History month efforts, considers Bolden a pioneer in a role he never envisioned a black woman would hold.
“I’m so very happy and so very pleased that she’s taken this step, and she’s just a wonderful individual,” he said on Tuesday in Anaheim, where he joined Bolden for a ceremonial puck drop before a Ducks game. “She’s played hockey and I know she’s going to do great in her job. Hopefully she’ll spread the word and we’ll have more girls that are interested in not only playing hockey, but getting into management positions.”
Sonny Milano netted the game winner in overtime and finished with two goals, leading the Ducks to a 4-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers.
Hockey has a long and sometimes uncomfortable history with black players.
An all-black league called the Coloured Hockey League was formed in the late 1800s in the eastern Canada province of Nova Scotia, but O’Ree didn’t break the NHL’s color barrier until 1958. He often was targeted by racial taunts, a problem that has haunted the sport even though there are now about 30 black players in the NHL.
In late November, Bill Peters resigned as Calgary’s coach in part because of a racial slur he directed at a Nigeria-born player a decade earlier. Last season, a semi-pro hockey league in Quebec apologized to a player who left the ice in the middle of a game because he and his family were targeted by racial abuse from spectators. The Washington Capitals rallied around a 13-year-old player in Maryland a year ago after he was the subject of racial taunts.
The NHL has launched many commendable inclusion-driven initiatives, such as its Hockey is for Everyone campaign. Bolden’s hiring is action, not just talk, and that’s powerful.
Bolden hasn’t set an end goal for her career she said because she’s still learning her new duties. She’s determined to prove the Kings right for putting their faith in her as well as to open doors to the kids she hopes will follow her path.
“Sometimes I get an email or an Instagram message saying, ‘Oh, I met you here and I just started to try and play hockey because I was inspired,’ ” she said, “and that is honestly the most amazing thing to hear when you’ve been doing something for so long, that you can really change the lives of someone that you don’t even really know but you feel connected to them.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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