Meredith Lang is making the State of Hockey more inclusive

Willie O'Ree recalls meeting Jackie Robinson, breaking hockey's color barrier (2:26)

Willie O'Ree, the Jackie Robinson of hockey, talks about the advice he received from Robinson as a kid and the adversity he faced. (2:26)

Meredith Lang was a hockey enthusiast.

She liked the game well enough to play in high school but left it behind to pursue a track and field career that carried her to the 2004 U.S. Olympic trials.

Life rolled on. Hockey morphed into distant memory. Then, Lang had two daughters. And as tends to happen, those kids changed everything.

It started with Lang's then-6-year-old, Aubrey, announcing she wanted to play hockey. That request took Lang back to her own playing days as the only Black girl lacing up skates and unexpectedly ignited a passion that would change the course of several futures.

"I thought I was going to have a track runner [for a kid], not a hockey player," Lang told ESPN recently. "But when Aubrey said she wanted to play, I tried to figure out how to get her into the hockey space."

Though Aubrey was enjoying the sport, it was clear there weren't many girls of color like her on the ice. It was the same struggle with feeling unseen that Lang had experienced in hockey, unspooling decades later upon a new generation. Only now, Lang felt equipped to do something about it.

It was the speed of hockey that drew her in.

Born in St. Louis, Lang lived there until she was 12. She went along to her first Blues game with her younger brother, Matt, in what became an unintentionally formative experience.

"I remember watching them play and just being enthralled," Lang recalled. "It was so quick and fast. I loved the speed. I don't know why I was drawn to it, but it wasn't like I thought at the time I could play it. Then when we moved to Minnesota, and I saw how big hockey was there, it was like, 'OK, now it's my opportunity to play.'"

Matt took to the ice first following their relocation. He even appeared as the goalie for Team Trinidad in "D2: The Mighty Ducks," which shot in their area. Lang was more hesitant to jump in but by eighth grade felt inspired by Matt's ascension to give hockey a chance.

It was immediately clear Lang didn't exactly fit the mold. Not that it would stop her.

"When I first started, it was painful," Lang said. "I was old enough to recognize I hadn't played before, and I was the only girl of color. My entire playing career it was always me, by myself, pioneering the game of hockey for girls of color. I grew up with parents encouraging me and saying I could be and do anything I wanted. I never wanted to be that person that fit into a box. It was always, 'Nope, I'm going to throw a curveball and play hockey.'"

Lang made it onto her high school's varsity team but by junior year had to choose between hockey and track. There were no college hockey scholarships in her future -- "I wasn't good enough to play at the level" -- so Lang put her efforts into excelling on the field and became a track star at Division II Morningside College in Iowa.

During her four years there, Lang was a 15-time All-American, two-time USTFCCCA National Outdoor Track & Field Athlete of the Year and two-time NCAA Division II heptathlon winner. In 2002, Lang finished fifth at the USATF championship in the heptathlon, and in 2004 went to the USATF Olympic trials in that event, finishing ninth. She has since been inducted into the Division II Hall of Fame.

It's no wonder Lang thought she'd pass track prowess onto her girls. They had a different path in mind, though. And Lang's past as an outsider would pave their way forward.

When Lang's family left St. Louis, they settled in Richfield, Minnesota. That's where she was moving her own family -- after a stint in North Carolina -- when Aubrey piped up about hockey.

Lang quickly got Aubrey involved with the Bloomington Girls Hockey Club, based in another suburb next to Richfield. Aubrey stood out in a sea of all-white teammates, so mother and daughter brainstormed how that could be fixed. Their solution was to get more BIPOC girls in the building.

Aubrey started by recruiting her best friend, Adelyn Janzig de la Luz, who's Mexican American, to come play. Then it was Aubrey's sister, Mia, and Adelyn's sister, Elisa, coming on board. Their foursome was hooked on hockey, and held out hope that more girls of color would join. That's all Lang, along with Adelyn and Elisa's mother, Laura, needed to know before co-founding the Hockey Niñas.

Their goal with the program was to spotlight girls of color who love hockey. It's typically a non-traditional sport to pursue within BIPOC communities, and the Hockey Niñas believed feeling seen was the key to girls participating.

"It was about encouraging other girls to [come to] hockey, that's really why we started the Niñas," Lang said. "It was just the [older] girls and their sisters trying to get other girls of color to come out, see them playing, see how much fun they were having [and posting about it] on their social media platforms."

Once the group was public, Lang and Laura started attending roundtable discussions and focus groups within the Minnesota hockey sphere to share their thoughts on a need for more representation.

"As a Black parent and Latino parent, we knew we could go within our community and really pioneer getting more kids of color in the game and do our part to have more [inclusion]," Lang said. "But it wasn't anything formalized. It was just through social media and passing along inspirational articles."

Lang became increasingly invested in her mission and was searching for ways to expand that purpose further. Her friend Jennifer Flowers, commissioner at the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, came up with an idea.

In early 2021, Flowers introduced Lang to former Bemidji State defenseman Tina Kampa. In no time, Lang and Kampa had formed a tight bond -- and collaborated on a joint vision to elevate the faces of BIPOC girls in hockey.

That's when Minnesota Unbounded was born.

Tina Kampa was like most new college graduates: eager to get started on the next chapter, unsure of how exactly to do that.

The Maple Grove, Minnesota, native was proud of her academic and athletic career spent patrolling Bemidji State's blue line. Hockey had always run deep for Kampa. She aspired to do even more in the sport, including how to create opportunities for young girls of color.

Kampa began hearing about the Hockey Niñas through various collegiate connections. She loved the program and wanted to meet the girls who started it. Little did Kampa know that Meredith Lang was about to steer her life in a new direction.

"When Meredith and I connected, she told us what they'd been doing and how she wants to make an impact in the game," Kampa said. "Those were some of our shared missions that connected into [asking], 'Is there a way to work together, in a way that we can do something bigger than we maybe originally thought?' And that became Minnesota Unbounded."

What Kampa and Lang co-founded together was different than the Hockey Niñas. The goal with the Niñas was making the game more inclusive to BIPOC girls; Minnesota Unbounded was to be a tournament team showcasing those underrepresented players.

The Niñas had given Lang an opportunity to make contacts and develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for the hockey community. She would channel all that into the Unbounded. Lang's ultimate vision was for a program she didn't see operating already, where aspiring BIPOC players from around the state wouldn't feel held back by race, gender or economic standing.

And the Hockey Niñas were folded right into the new endeavor, making it one entity determined to count every girl in.

"Being part of Minnesota Unbounded, I feel like we are America's team," Lang said. "Because when we wanted to get started, we didn't know what we were doing. We just knew people. Tina had connections and I had connections through the Hockey Niñas, and we just reached out to people."

For the Unbounded to succeed, it had to be accessible. Hockey is a notoriously expensive sport, requiring equipment and ice time that frequently prices out lower-income (and even middle-class) families. Lang and Kampa needed ways to bring down the cost.

Lang's first stop was Richfield Ice Arena, where she played high school hockey. Richfield doesn't have a girl's program -- hence Lang's daughters playing in Bloomington -- but the rink was an agreeable partner.

The rink came through with subsidized ice for practices on certain dates, which was the first step to making this vision a feasible reality.

Then, Lang went to Bloomington and asked if they'd be willing to offer subsidized ice on the dates Richfield's was unavailable. Bloomington was in, too. Lang and Kampa were "in awe" of how the community stepped up, especially when US Bank volunteered to provide the team with jerseys.

Those contributions allowed the Unbounded to hold seven weekly practices, bring in guest speakers and outfit its girls without breaking the bank; the cost to a family was $150 for the entire program.

"We're on a shoestring budget of cheap ice, and all of our coaches are on a volunteer basis," Lang said.

It was Kampa who tracked down the team's coaches (and of course, she is one herself). Kampa leaned on old friends -- like Maia Martinez, a senior at Union College, and Nina Rodgers, the first Black women's college hockey coach, now at Dartmouth -- to join the organization's ranks.

As the Unbounded grew from its initial 31 players to over 50, more coaches donated their time to the ever-expanding roster.

"It was pretty easy to get people on board and excited about what we could potentially do," Kampa said. "It takes a village. We were able to get these young girls of color on a tournament team and it blew up into something a lot bigger than just playing together; it became a community and a mentorship program and showing these girls that there are women in the game that have achieved things, and they have the ability to connect with those people as well."

Minnesota Unbounded is a passion project. A side hustle if you will.

Lang works full time as an organizational development business partner for a subsidiary of Delta Airlines, called Endeavor Air. And Kampa is an assistant coach at Hamline University, plus she coaches kids ages 7-17 at OS Hockey.

The Unbounded is for any pockets of free time they can muster.

"Tina and I are texting thousands of times a week," Lang said. "She's working on practice plans, and I'm running with the ice times. And we're in the process of becoming a nonprofit so that we're able to help get more funding, but everything is happening in between the in between."

Their work has drawn attention far and wide. Families from across other states have reached out about joining the Unbounded for a tournament in August. And the Unbounded's mission is expanding beyond just the present day.

Recently, Tennessee State University began fundraising to establish Division I women's and men's hockey teams, which would be a first for an HBCU school. Lang hopes that, through future partnerships, the Unbounded can "shine a light on the potential of an HBCU having hockey, and for girls to start thinking about playing at an HBCU."

Lang's enterprising nature has also led to being named one of three finalists for the NHL's Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award, along with Noel Acton (co-founder of The Tender Bridge and Banners Hockey) and Ryan Francis (co-founder of Indigenous Girls Hockey Nova Scotia). The winner will receive $25,000; voting for the prize is open from April 4 to 17 at NHL.com/OReeAward.

"My passion is growing the game," she said. "When our BIPOC kids have positive experiences, they're going to go out and give back to hockey. They're going to be future hockey parents. They're going to be coaching, they're going to play at the highest level. They could be the next Olympians; they could be beer league champions. I don't care. I just want them to be able to give back so that we can continue to grow the game that's been ​underrepresented."