, , , , ,

All Renee Hess wanted was a little company.

“I had never seen two black women at a hockey game before,” said Hess, a Riverside, California resident who likes to attend Anaheim Ducks games. “So I made it my mission this year to make that happen.”

Mission accomplished, big time.  Hess’ organization, the Black Girl Hockey Club, held its inaugural meetup at the Washington CapitalsBuffalo Sabres game Saturday night at D.C.’s Capital One Arena.

The Black Girl Hockey Club meet members of the Washington Capitals after a game between the Buffalo Sabres and Capitals at Capital One Arena (Photo/ Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images).

More than 40 women of color traveled from across the country to join Hess and witness Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly notch his 100th National Hockey League career point in Washington’s 4-3 shootout win over Buffalo.

The game was exciting but so, too, was the sight of so many women of color and their hockey-playing children quickly bonding by sharing their experiences of being minorities in love with and involved in a predominately white sport.

“The more I started talking to women who were hockey fans, the more I realized that so many hadn’t been to games because they didn’t feel comfortable going to games or they didn’t know anybody who was going to go with them,” said Hess, an associate professor of English at La Sierra University in Riverside.

Black Girl Hockey Club Founder Renee Hess meets Washington Capitals defenseman Madison Bowey after a game between the Buffalo Sabres and Capitals (Photo/ Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images).

“Doing this in D.C., it turned into this big ‘ol thing that snowballed. Once people started hearing about it they were telling their friends – that one black friend who plays hockey,” she added. “We’re not islands, we just didn’t know the others existed. So what I wanted to do is make us more visible.”

Hess identified Washington as the perfect spot for the first meetup because the Capitals have two black players, Smith-Pelly and defenseman Madison Bowey; two black part-owners in Earl Stafford and Sheila Johnson; and the team won the Stanley Cup last season.

Washington also has a strong minority hockey history with the presence of the
Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, North America’s oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program.

Members of the Black Girl Hockey Club enjoy the game between the Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres in D.C. Saturday night (Photo/Washington Capitals).

The Capitals and the National Hockey League – including Kim Davis, the league’s  executive vice president of social impact, growth and legislative affairs -rolled out the welcome mat for BGHC.

Stafford hosted a pre-game reception and spoke to the group in a conference room at Capital One Arena. Shandor Alphonso, the NHL’s only black on-ice official, stopped by with the rest of the officiating crew that worked Saturday’s game  and talked about what life is like wearing referee zebra stripes.

Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly signs Black Girl Hockey Club member Corinne McIntosh-Douglas’ jersey (Photo/Oyin Adedoyin/Morgan State University).

“I had not known of this organization, a gathering of those you typically wouldn’t expect to see at a hockey game,” Stafford told NHL.com. “It just encourages me that there are people out there interested in this great sport and we want to tell their story.”

Even Slap Shot, the Capitals mascot popped in to give high-fives and pose for pictures with the women and their kids. He brought along the mascots for the Sabres, Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars, Washington Nationals baseball team and Washington Wizards basketball team.

Lonnie Bunch III, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, was on hand to witness the historic event and attend his first NHL game.

Lonnie Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, attends his first NHL game and meets the Black Girl Hockey Club rocking a Devante Smith-Pelly jersey (Photo/Jackie Jones).

Friday, the BGHC members were given a personal tour of the popular museum with sports curator Damion Thomas as their guide. The women took a tour of Capitol Hill’s Capitol Visitor’s Center Friday morning, courtesy of Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a member of the Congressional Hockey Caucus.

After Saturday’s game, the group met and chatted with Smith-Pelly, Bowey, goaltender Braden Holtby, defenseman Brooks Orpik, and center Nic Dowd.

“This is great, Smith-Pelly said. “I didn’t think it would be possible to have a room full of full of black hockey fans, black women hockey fans. It’s awesome. To have the people in this room behind me, it’s pretty cool.”

“That’s a good organization that they started and hopefully it gets bigger and they continue to try to change the game,” Smith-Pelly added.

Bowey agreed.

“This shows the diversity that’s come a long way,” he said. “Willie O’Ree broke the barrier for us, and I can’t thank him enough for what he’s done. It’s awesome to see this and it makes me very proud that I can be one player of color to make it in the NHL.”

Black Girl Hockey Club meet member Flo Clemmons strikes a pose with Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby (Photo/Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images).

For Florence Clemmons, who traveled from Rochester, New York, meeting the Capitals players, Stafford and Alphonso was great, but bonding with such a large group of  black female hockey fans was something truly special.

“I think it’s important to show folks what we’re really all about,” said Clemmons,  who is program director for the Genesee Valley Youth Hockey Club. “We are a culture of folks that really likes the sport, knows about the sport, and really wants to see the sport grow.”

Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik signs autographs for some of the kids who attended the Black Girls Hockey Club meetup at the Capitals-Buffalo Sabres game in D.C. Saturday (Photo/Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images).

Kelsey Koelzer, a defenseman for the Metropolitan Riveters of the National Women’s Hockey League, said it was “a no brainer” for her and her mother, Kristine, to attend the meetup.

“Being a current black female hockey player and getting to meet up with fellow black hockey fans in general, it was something I knew I had to be a part of,” Koelzer said.  “I was surprised about the numbers, but really not surprised. I think the sport is growing a lot and catching on. Getting to do this in this setting, at an NHL game, is really, really special.”

Hess and her fellow BGHC members promise that Saturday’s meetup won’t be a one-off. BGHC, along with the Color of Hockey, are planning a February 10 gather in Tennessee for the Nashville Predators-St. Louis Blues match followed by the NWHL All-Star Game.  

“I know our numbers are going to grow, this being the first time,” Clemmons said. “I know once this becomes national, there’s no stopping us.”

Follow the Color of Hockey on Facebook and Twitter @ColorOfHockey. And download the Color of Hockey podcast from iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud and Google Play.