Renee Hess is an avid hockey fan from Riverside, California. Whenever she went to an Anaheim Ducks or Los Angeles Kings game, she couldn't help but notice: There were never two Black women sitting together.
Hess connected with other Black women on social media, and heard similar anecdotes: Sometimes they felt uncomfortable going to an arena, wary of feeling lonely or getting "weird looks" suggesting they didn't belong.
So Hess organized a meetup for what she called Black Girl Hockey Club in 2018 at a Washington Capitals game. "I didn't really have any expectations," Hess said. "I just wanted to form a community."
After more than 40 women showed up to the first meetup, she held another in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2019. Soon after, the House of Representatives introduced a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Willie O'Ree, the NHL's first Black player. Hess was invited to D.C. for an event celebrating the bill. "At first I was like, why am I getting invited to go?" she said. "Who am I?"
Her second thought: How am I going to afford this?
"I was paying for everything myself, to D.C., to Nashville, I couldn't afford to go back," said Hess, then an adjunct professor and freelance writer. "So I put it out on social media: 'I really want to go to this thing, I think it would be cool to represent, can you guys help me raise some money for an airline ticket and accommodation?' And folks did."
Hess was flattered, but also inspired by how big the support group was, "just to represent, and give them a voice."
"I spent the rest of 2019 wondering, what could I do for this audience?" she said. "This group of people who were willing not just to put their voice forward, but their dollars too."
Two years later, she had no idea just how big Black Girl Hockey Club would become. Now registered as a nonprofit, Hess launched a scholarship program. To date, she has awarded $27,000 worth of grants to 26 young Black girls all over the world -- everywhere from Winnipeg to California to Nairobi. This summer, BGHC is creating a mentorship program (which is led and inspired by Metropolitan Riveters defenseman Saroya Tinker). Hess also created a "Get Uncomfortable Pledge," which is meant to "call out allies and have folks who say they are supportive of anti-racism in hockey, to put words into action," says Hess. Over 6,000 individuals signed the pledge, including many NHL team staffers, executives and players.
Hess has also been named one of three finalists for the NHL's Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award. If she wins, she will receive $25,000.
Being recognized by the NHL -- and feeling supported by the league behind the scenes -- feels like a significant step for Hess. Hockey remains one of the most predominantly white sports in the world. There are no Black majority team owners, team presidents, GMs or head coaches in the NHL. Roughly 95% of the league's players are white.
"I think that the NHL is listening, which is a big change from what they were doing five years ago," Hess said. "And they're making those incremental changes in things we've talked about."
Hess said she has noticed a gradual shift when it comes to advertising. "I'm seeing more Black people in hockey commercials than I've ever seen in my life," she said. "And not just that -- teams supporting their Black players, and making sure they are visible. It rides a fine line between tokenism and advertising, because they're so few, but for Black audience members, it's a breath of fresh air. So I see it as a positive thing to highlight these black players. They're there, they're doing the work, they deserve the recognition."
Hess cites a conversation she recently had with Kings pro scout Blake Bolden, the first Black woman to ever hold the role.
"She was like, 'Not to be cheesy -- but you need to see it to believe it,'" Hess said. "And I was like, 'No girl, it's not cheesy, because it's just true.' How many Black girls have been inspired by seeing Blake Bolden on the ice, or Sarah Nurse or Saroya Tinker? Representation is so important."
Increasingly, people working in hockey have reached out to Hess. The main thing she tries to instill is the power they hold. "Whether you're in ticket sales, or the GM of a team, you have power," Hess said. "It doesn't have to be, 'We solved racism,' because you can't do that. But you can hire Black folks in your office. You can recruit from HBCUs. You can address wage disparities between the white, brown and Black women in the office. It's amazing how many white people in hockey don't have Black friends. And I'm like, 'I'll be your Black friend!'"
At one recent digital event, an attendee messaged Hess to tell her how informative and enlightening the session was. As an aside, the person wrote, they had never been around that many Black people before. "It's astounding to me," she said. "But I'm happy to be that resource. I'm happy for Black Girl Hockey Club to be that resource, as long as our audience realizes our main purpose is to support and elevate Black women. We don't discriminate, we're just focused. And that's our focus."
Hess, who is now the associate director of service learning at La Sierra University, is now working on a book about Black women in hockey.
The aspect of BGHC that has given her the most joy is the scholarship program. The BGHC, which now has a board, had applied for nonprofit status at the end of 2019. Then COVID-19 hit, and they didn't hear back from the federal government until July 2020. Once they were approved, they awarded the first scholarship to 11-year-old Talia Rose of Ontario. Rose, a goalie, was given $5,000 and a full set of equipment. And then BGHC kept giving away more and more scholarships, including a new class of 14 that was just announced last week.
Typically, Hess hosts a celebration party over Zoom for the recipients, their parents, and the scholarship committee. After the last one, one of the moms told Hess: "My daughter has so much more confidence knowing she has this scholarship and was recognized. She's really quiet, she doesn't really have many friends outside her hockey friends, and it's huge for her.'"
"Hearing stories about these girls who are the only Black girl playing on their team or their league, they've never played with another Black girl or they've never even met another Black girl that plays hockey," Hess said. "And all of a sudden they're in his Zoom room with, like, you know, 10 other girls that play hockey. It's just really, really special."
Hess always makes sure the girls share Instagram handles so they can stay in touch. And who knows, maybe they'll end up attending an NHL game together sometime.