Two hockey teams of color literally took the show on the road this month to showcase their skill and their commitment to making the game more diverse.
The women of the Brown Bears and the boys from the NextGEN AAA Foundation didn’t take home any championship trophies, but they still felt like winners because their presence at two New England tournaments proved a point.
“It’s just shows that hockey is for everybody,” Brown Bears co-captain Gina Weires told me. “It shows that we can do it.”
Weires and fellow co-captain Jasmine Bazinet-Phillips formed the Brown Bears to participate in the Hockey Fights MS Vermont Tournament.
The two friends wanted their team to be different. They wanted a roster of mostly minority women, something that they never experienced in their years of playing in the Maryland-Washington-Delaware-Virginia area.
“Seeing other hockey players of color around growing up, but very few, we felt that it was important that the ice surface is as diverse as the cities that we live in,” Bazinet-Phillips said. “Getting together the team, we hope to build a network of female hockey players of color, and then give female hockey players of color something to look forward to during the year in terms of coming to the tournament. But we also want to inspire them to go back to their local ice arenas and begin to build diversity at their rinks.”
But the first step for Bazinet-Phillips and Weires was building the Brown Bears’ inaugural roster.
Bazinet-Phillips, a Baltimore native who played NCAA Division III hockey at Maine’s Colby College, and Weires, a Washington, D.C., resident who played for and managed American University’s women’s club hockey team, reached out to the few minority players they knew and then brainstormed about where to find others.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney awkwardly stated that he had “binders full of women” who he could hire if he won the 2012 presidential election.
Weires and Bazinet-Phillips didn’t have binders, but they assembled a Google Doc with the names of 45 minority female hockey players who they could invite to join the Brown Bears, including some heavy hitters.
They contacted Sarah Nurse, who starred at the University of Wisconsin and won a Silver Medal playing for Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
They reached out to defenseman Blake Bolden, a National Women’s Hockey League and Canadian Women’s Hockey League champion who played last season on HC Lugano’s women’s team in Switzerland.
Nurse and Bolden couldn’t make it. But Jordan Smelker, a forward for the NWHL’s Boston Pride, and Toni Sanders, a forward who skated for NCAA Division I Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute from 2010-11 to 2013-14 did make it.
So did an 18-year-old who played high school varsity hockey and a 55-year old woman who started playing the game five years ago. In all, 12 women of varying skill put on the tie-dyed jersey with the big claw logo and played for the Brown Bears in Vermont.
The team didn’t win a game, largely because tournament organizers moved it out of the women’s division into a more competitive co-ed division because of the presence of Smelker, Sanders and other skilled players.
“We were moved to the second-highest division with predominantly males,” she said. “I think it kind of made the men’s heads spin, but I think they were also happy to have us there. There was a very positive aspect to their reaction.”
The players on the NextGEN team turned heads with their performance at New England’s Pro-Am Hockey’s 2018 Chowder Cup in suburban Boston earlier this month.
NextGEN – a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring, education and hockey programs to low-income and at-risk youth – fielded a team with some of the program’s elite players and sent them to the tournament through a sponsorship from Pure Hockey, the largest hockey equipment retailer in the United States.
The players came from across the U.S. and Canada and had never skated together. But once they hit the ice, it seemed like they had been playing together forever, NextGen founder Dee Dee Ricks said.
Tournament coach Khalil Thomas – head coach and general manager of the Oshawa RiverKings and father of 2018 NHL second-round draft pick Akil Thomas – and Program Director Jeff Devenney ran the players through a few practices and had them ready to go.
NextGEN lost in the tourney’s quarterfinals to the NW Huskies, the team that went on to capture the Chowder Cup championship.
“It doesn’t really matter about the winning, if you could have seen these kids together. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Ricks said. “Just in terms of the bonding, the jelling, the acceptance. Immediately, it was like they were life-long friends, coming together for the cause.”
Bryce Salvador, NextGEN’s NHL alumni ambassador and a former captain for the New Jersey Devils, said the mostly-minority squad was just thrilled to have the experience.
“It doesn’t happen so often when you get a team that’s as diverse like that at a high level,” said Salvador, who was the NHL’s third black team captain. “Just the ability for them just to spend time together was, in my opinion, more important than actually playing the game.”
That said, Ricks and the NextGEN brain trust showed as much competitive fire during the tournament as the team that it put on the ice.
“My son went out for three shifts in one of the last games that we were up. And one of the (opposing) kids asked him ‘Why are you playing with a bunch of black kids?'” recalled Ricks, who is white. “And John-John looked at him, and he goes, ‘Why are you losing to a bunch of black kids?'”
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