NWHL broadcaster Erica Ayala: I'm energized to increase hockey exposure to minorities

Erica Ayala, left, was part of a three-woman broadcast team including Sherry Ross for the 2019 NWHL All-Star Game in Nashville. Michelle Jay

It's like living a beautiful dream far beyond anything you imagined possible. "I was looking for a dime and found a quarter," Blues guitarist Buddy Guy once said. That is the best way to describe my broadcast career in the National Women's Hockey League.

This weekend, I was part of a three-woman broadcast team for the 2019 NWHL All-Star Game in Nashville.

Among the players, coaches and staff who coordinated the two-day display of speed and skill, two were women of color. The first was Buffalo Beauts defender and hardest shot competition winner Blake Bolden. The second was me.

Supporting us was a group of fans from the Black Girl Hockey Club (BGHC). The group brings together hockey fans from all over the world who range in age from 2 to 80.

On Saturday, BGHC held a special viewing of the documentary "Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future" on the jumbotron at Bridgestone Arena. Following the viewing, I facilitated a panel including BGHC founder Renee Hess, film director Kwame Mason and Color of Hockey blog founder Bill Douglas.

Each played a unique role in my interest in hockey and my development as a women's hockey reporter and analyst. In a sport in which the NHL just started officially celebrating Black History Month this year, it is easy to feel out of place.

Mason's and Douglas' work has helped me understand the history of players of color in the game. Without them, I might not know the stories of Angela James, the first Canadian woman in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Willie O'Ree, the first black player in the National Hockey League, and Herb Carnegie, the best black hockey player to never play in the NHL. Hess brings her knowledge to the fans through her meet-ups, showing that people of color have always been and remain part of hockey culture.

I remember the day I saw my first black hockey player. On Oct. 18, 2015, I took my younger sister, Jessica, to the Aviator Sports and Events Center in Brooklyn, New York, to watch an NWHL game between the New York Riveters and Boston Pride. That was the first home game of the now Metropolitan Riveters.

As the teams took to the ice for warm-ups, I was impressed by the Pride player wearing No. 10. Her shot was so powerful that I expressed a genuine concern for the Riveters players. When I realized the shot belonged to a black player, I looked down at the team rosters to learn her name. It was Blake Bolden.

Despite the Riveters losing 7-1 in that first game, Jessica and I went to every home game in the first season and most of the away games. I knew I'd fallen in love with hockey when we planned a road trip to see the Riveters play in Buffalo. The game had become so exciting to watch live, and meeting the players after the game was cool, too. My sister collected autographs from almost every player from the first NWHL season on a league T-shirt (Riveters on the front, naturally). That shirt represents history being made and our bond as sisters becoming stronger. It truly is priceless.

My hockey journey is unique because women, particularly women of color, got me hooked on the game. My sister invited me to a Riveters game in which Bolden's shot caught my eye. However, my path is the exception, not the rule. My sister and Bolden continually reminded me that women of color love hockey, too, an important affirmation in a sport that remains extremely white on and off the ice.

Early in my hockey journey, I reached out to Mason and Douglas to learn more about women of color in the game. While I found both to be great men's hockey resources, I wanted more content on women's hockey as a fan-turned-analyst.

Those inquiries turned into opportunities for me to write about Bolden, James, Meghan Huertas, Kim Davis and more. Contributing to women's sports blogs and podcasts eventually led to an opportunity to serve as the color analyst at a Riveters home game for the first time on Feb. 7, 2017.

Fast-forward to this Sunday, and I reported from between the benches in front of a crowd of 6,120 fans -- the largest for a women's professional hockey game -- at Bridgestone Arena. Another 465,000 viewers watched on Twitter. The support of other journalists and fans during a memorable moment in women's hockey history was overwhelming.

For me, the end game is not to have my time in hockey remembered in the same way as Bolden and others. As I leave Music City after a phenomenal weekend, I'm more energized than ever to open opportunities and increase exposure to minorities in and around the game.

No, I didn't play hockey, but I played Division I softball at Elon University. I know how it feels to sacrifice to be an elite player and not have much support outside of immediate family. I especially know what it feels like to be the only person of color on a team and the isolation that sometimes creates. As a fan and now analyst, detailing what it takes to play at the professional level is important to me.

Buddy Guy also said, "Just be the best 'til the best come 'round." I'm looking forward to meeting the next NWHL broadcasters of color.