(From L to R) Kat Smerdel (Pittsburgh Penguins), Kim Davis (NHL), Kwame Mason (Soul on Ice director), Erica Ayala (the IX, BGHC), Howard Smith (USA Hockey), Renee Hess (BGHC), Delvina Morrow (Pittsburgh Penguins), Bill Douglas (NHL.com, Color of Hockey), Tracy McCants-Lewis (Pittsburgh Penguins), Tom Langston (Hockey Sticks Together)

My Problem with the Penguins

I have had a connection to the Pittsburgh Penguins for my entire time as a hockey fan, so when I started looking at arenas to visit with Black Girl Hockey Club in the 2019-2020 season, Pittsburgh and PPG Paints Arena was on the top of my list, but I truly didn’t know how the team would respond.

It was only two and a half years ago I started a letter writing campaign begging the Penguins not to go to the White House after their 2017 Stanley Cup win. The joy I felt after a back-to-back championships tamped down to embarrassed resignation when it became clear that the team planned to visit Trump in the White House. The team, at the time of the 2017 win (and currently) had no minority players. When Penguins Captain, Sidney Crosby, told the media that the visit wasn’t “political”, I felt ashamed that these rich, white, hockey players couldn’t see the controversy in their actions.

Many hockey friends, mostly women of color, asked me how I could continue to support a team and organization that didn’t recognize the dissonance of America’s current administration and the minority community. I dealt with it by backing away from the passion I had for the team and reigning it in, a nearly impossible task if you know how hard I go for my fandoms. I didn’t want to get hurt. I stopped buying merchandise and watching games on television and acutely began to notice the demographics at the arenas I visited when I went to live games. After a couple really good years as a hockey fan, I wondered if perhaps hockey would never truly be for me.

50+ BGHC attendees gather during the Jan 31 Penguins game to take a group picture.

An Entry Point

It was during this time that I started the Black Girl Hockey Club. I wanted to gather those of us not part of the “traditional” hockey market (a coded word that means white, cis male) and create a space that I began to realize didn’t exist. What is the entry point to hockey for a Black woman? For those of us not introduced to the game early on, an introduction to hockey and a space to grow and learn about the sport feels nonexistent. With BGHC, I wanted to reach women, LGBTQ and minority fans who don’t go to games because of a variety of reasons. It became a way for me to feel less isolated and to not only create a space for myself, but for others, as well.

With the Penguins, that reality culminated with their Black Hockey History Day on January 31, 2020, officially deemed so by Pittsburgh Mayor, Bill Peduto. After months of conversation with Tracy McCants-Lewis and Delvina Morrow, two Black women who work in the Penguins organization, Black Girl Hockey Club had a game day set and the event began to come together. We wanted to do some service in the community. Tracy McCants-Lewis planned a hockey activation at Miller Elementary, a local elementary school with a distinctive African curriculum. The Penguins offered to give us a tour of the arena and feed us breakfast. We worked with Kwame Mason to screen his film, Soul on Ice (2016), and hold a panel on Black hockey culture at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh the day after the game that we made sure was open to the public and the local hockey community. Before we knew it, we had two days of activities planned out for 50 attendees, a student rush ticket link and a general BGHC ticket link open to the public that garnered over 350 ticket sales. Simultaneously, I began receiving calls from other NHL clubs that wanted to host not only BGHC, but have me participate in various activities such as panel discussions and social media pushes.

BGHC members pose with kids after a floor hockey activation put on by the Pittsburgh Penguins at Miller Elementary in Pittsburgh on Jan 31.

The New York Rangers invited BGHC to participate in stakeholder discussions and a panel on diversity in hockey and helped plan a meetup at Madison Square Garden. The Carolina Hurricanes want to work with us on a longterm partnership between our two organizations. The New York Islanders invited BGHC to their Hockey Is For Everyone Game for the second year in a row. The New Jersey Devils asked a group of BGHC women to attend a game with them to celebrate Black Hockey History. We organized a meetup with the Columbus Blue Jackets and young minority players from the Columbus Ice Hockey Club. Six meetups in five weeks, and at the time of publishing, we have attended three of those events with three to go. Honestly, I’m excited because it feels like the tide is changing in hockey. There are people across North America of all races and genders who want to work toward a culture shift in hockey that ultimately benefits minorities, specifically women of color. I may be an eternal optimist, but the conversations I have had and the honest, no nonsense way that some of these clubs are willing to admit they’ve messed up in the past gives me hope for the future.

Full Circle

It seems only right that my hockey journey would come full circle with the Penguins in Pittsburgh, the very place where I first discovered the game of hockey almost a decade ago. The team that bends but does not break, that shifts their game with the ever changing current of hockey is also changing the way Black fans interact with the hockey community. How fitting that this same team would be the one to hire two amazing Black women to help bring the organization into the new decade with a purpose. We are already talking about what the Penguins and BGHC can do to celebrate Black hockey culture next year, and the year after that. Perhaps another game, film screening or panel. Perhaps a BGHC chapter in Pittsburgh for local hockey fans to enjoy. Whatever we do, I know it’s going to be inclusive and a ton of fun. I’m pretty excited that Black Girl Hockey Club gets to be a part of that.

Renee Hess enjoying the American Legacy Black Hockey History Mobile Museum in Pittsburgh, Jan 31



*Originally posted in the BGHC February 2020 newsletter*

5 thoughts on “It’s a Good Day for Black Hockey History in Pittsburgh!

  1. Did the Edmonton Oilers reach out to you? If not, us Oilers fans should be pushing them! As the hometown of Jarome Iginla and Shawn Belle, the NHL Team for Caleb Jones, Darnell Nurse, Theo Peckham, Joaquin Gage, Pokey Reddick, Mark Fraser, Mike Greer, Shawn Belle, George Laraque, Sean Brown, Freddie Braithwaite, Anson Carter, and of course HHOF Grant Fuhr!!!! the Oilers need to be working with groups like yours.

  2. If you ever want to reach connect with the 2019 WORLD CHAMPION St. Louis Blues, or the Chicago Blackhawks, please let me know. I’m from STL and live in Chicago. I’m in your FB group.

  3. Are you familiar with ” THE COLOURED HOCKEY LEAGUE OF THE MARITIMES”? It was one of the very first professional sports leagues in this Hemisphere.

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