It’s in a picture frame hanging on a wall in Blake Bolden’s Boston apartment, the historic and happy reminder that she is indeed a professional hockey player.
Elite female hockey players with professional aspirations finally have a North American league of their own in which they play and get paid. The league consists of four teams – the Pride, Connecticut Whale, Buffalo Beauts, and the New York Riveters.
“It’s still kind of like a pinch me-type feeling,” Bolden said of her paycheck and the league’s inaugural season. “It’s an awesome little reminder of how far we’ve come and the dreams you have when you’re a little girl. It’s surreal.”
At 24, Bolden is a perpetual hockey history-maker. The defenseman was the first African-American player in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League – which doesn’t pay salaries to its players – as a member of the Boston Blades in the 2013-14 season.
After two seasons with the Blades, Bolden became the NWHL’s first black player when she signed on with the the Pride as a free agent.
“My family likes to kid around, they say ‘Blake, you like to do a lot of firsts.’ I say ‘I’m trying over here,'” she said. “I love when younger black girls come up to me and talk to me. I always give them my contact information because it is a responsibility. I strongly encourage black girls to pick up a stick because hockey consumes me. It’s my favorite thing to do, it’s my home, essentially.”
A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Bolden starred for Boston College from 2009-10 to 2012-13 and wore the captain’s “C” for the Eagles women’s hockey team in her senior year. She tallied 27 goals and 56 assists in 138 NCAA hockey contests, ranking her third all-time in scoring among Boston College’s women defensemen.
Bolden said one of the joys of being at BC was playing with Kaliya Johnson, an African-American defenseman who grew up in Los Angeles and Arizona. Johnson is a senior at BC this season and will be eligible for the 2016 NWHL Draft.
“People used to say ‘Oh, the twins,’ not in a disrespectful, racist way,” Bolden said. “It was just funny that we both decided to go to the same school. I love that she went to BC and I was able to play with her for a couple of years.”
Bolden said she never would have become a hockey player had it not been for her mother’s boyfriend, a man she considers a father. He was a hockey enthusiast who worked part-time for the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the old International Hockey League.
“I used to go to all the IHL games in Cleveland,” she recalled. “Because he worked for the team, I used to get to go into the locker room, they (Lumberjacks players) would come to my birthday parties, the mascot would show up everywhere, and I was just totally enthralled. Hockey became my life ever since.”
Forward Jessica Koizumi is another hockey-lifer and NWHL player who framed her first pro paycheck as a keepsake. Probably the best professional hockey player born in Honolulu, she captains the currently undefeated Connecticut Whale.
“I never thought a paid professional hockey league for women would happen in my lifetime and I feel blessed every day I get to put on our jersey,” said Koizumi, who picked up the sport when her family moved to Minnesota and later to California. “Being a part of history in the making is special and I am having a blast.”
Koizumi, aka “Tsunami,” has a prominent place in the NWHL record book as the player who scored the league’s first goal, a power play tally against the Riveters in October.
“Knowing what it stood for was very emotional for me,” she told me. “The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto just asked me to send my stick that I used to score the first goal a few weeks ago. It makes for a very fun trivia question and a neat memory to have.”
Not that Koizumi, 30, is short on hockey memories. She was a member of the United States team that won the Gold Medal at the 2008 International Ice Hockey Federation World Women’s Championship in China.
She captained the University of Minnesota-Duluth women’s hockey team and is seventh on the school’s career scoring list with 84 goals and 71 assists in 132 NCAA games from 2003-04 to 2006-07.
She helped power the UMD Bulldogs to the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four championship game in 2006-07, a 4-1 loss to the rival Wisconsin Badgers.
Like Bolden, Koizumi gravitated to the CWHL after college, playing part-time for the then-called Montreal Stars and the Boston Blades. She helped lead the Blades to Clarkson Cup championships in 2012-13 and 2014-15.
Still, Koizumi views the NWHL as the perfect vehicle to take professional women’s hockey to the next level, especially if the league raises its $270,000 team salary cap to better enable players to devote all their time and energy to the game.
With practice twice a week and one game a weekend, NWHL players juggle hockey with full-time jobs to make ends meet. Koizumi works as an assistant coach for Yale University’s women’s hockey team.
Bolden is employed by Inner City Weightlifting, a non-profit program that provides education and job training in the physical fitness field for Boston’s at-risk residents.
“I would like to see more investors and sponsors supporting our league and keep growing the fan base to make sure it’s sustainable,” Koizumi told me. “I don’t need to get too greedy, but it would be nice to have our salary cap grow so that in due time we can be paid full time and not have to supplement our income with another job.”
And with success on the ice and at the gate, Koizumi envisions the NWHL expanding to other cities in the not-too-distant future.
“I see franchises growing in Minnesota, Chicago, and possibly Vermont,” she said. “I hope one day we can merge with the CWHL because that would make the most sense having a few Canadian cities in our league.”
The league already embarked on an international adventure when the Riveters traveled to Japan earlier this month to play games against Smile Japan, the country’s national women’s team that competed in the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2015 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Malmo, Sweden.
Smile Japan goaltender Nana Fujimoto, who was named top goaltender at the IIHF tournament, is on the Riveters’ roster.
“This league has built a platform for young girls to aspire to,” Koizumi told me. “It certainly is fun for us players to have fans and young girls aspiring to be like us.”