Gretchen Ertl / The New York Times
Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016 | 12:02 a.m.
Three years ago, girls from the Hockey in Newark youth program were invited to meet the Princeton women’s hockey team.
During the visit, the girls, many of whom are members of minorities, were drawn to defender Kelsey Koelzer. Like them, Koelzer, who is African-American, played much of her youth in secondhand equipment and was raised by a single parent who struggled to accommodate the costly expenses of hockey.
The girls peppered Koelzer with questions. Koelzer was struck by the encounter, too; her mother, Kristine, still remembers her daughter talking about the effect the visit had.
Koelzer’s influence is expanding in her senior season at Princeton. In June, she was selected first overall by the New York Riveters in the National Women’s Hockey League draft. Koelzer is believed to be the first African-American player taken No. 1 by a top-tier American professional hockey league. Shortly after the historic pick, Sarah Nurse of Canada, who is also black, was selected in the second round by the Boston Pride.
Koelzer and Nurse, a forward at Wisconsin, are two of college hockey’s top players and rising stars in their national-team programs. With increased visibility, they recognize their capacity to motivate a generation of young girls from similar backgrounds.
“I personally don’t know that I’ve played against many African-American people growing up,” Koelzer said recently after a game at Princeton, where she is captain. “I really do take pride in the fact that I could be a mentor and a model for other young girls, to see it really is possible if you put the work in no matter your situation or where you’re from.”
Other inner-city youth programs like Hockey in Newark have striven to introduce hockey to new audiences, highlighting a sport that has not always been viewed as accessible for financial and cultural reasons.
Despite these barriers, women of color have long been instrumental in the emergence of women’s hockey in North America. The Canadians Angela James, whose father is black, and Vicky Sunohara, who is of Japanese descent, were early pioneers. For years, Julie Chu, who is Chinese-American, was a star on the U.S. women’s national team. Last season, Rachel Llanes, a Filipino-American, and Blake Bolden, an African-American, were key contributors as the Pride won the first Isobel Cup, the trophy awarded to the NWHL champion. In 2015, they won the Clarkson Cup with the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
Koelzer and Nurse expressed a desire to continue that legacy, to help shape women’s hockey as more inclusive as it continues to increase its audience. “Diversity is an important element of the NWHL,” Commissioner Dani Rylan said in an email.
Earlier this year, Koelzer was recognized as one of the nation’s best offensive defenders, earning first team All-American honors and a spot on the U.S. under-22 team. According to USA Hockey, an African-American player has yet to make the women’s senior national team.
Nurse, also a senior, is a lethal scorer, and she led the top-ranked Wisconsin Badgers in points entering this weekend’s games. She has already competed in the Four Nations Cup with the Canadian national team and was an alternate captain of the developmental team last summer, when she played against Koelzer. Both hope to eventually compete at the Olympics.
John Sanful, the executive director of Ice Hockey in Harlem, said it was “incredibly important” that children from minority groups are able to “see people on the ice who look like them,” particularly at such high levels of competition. Over the summer, girls from his program were assigned to report on an influential figure in their lives, and one chose Koelzer, writing, “I like that she’s a black female that wanted to be a hockey player and she achieved her goal.”
For some players, hockey rinks can occasionally be uninviting. Tarasai Karega, who won a Division III national title at Amherst in 2009, started playing when she saw the film “The Mighty Ducks,” influenced by the character Jesse, the only black player portrayed on the team. Karega said that even entering a rink now can feel unsettling.
“It’s tangible that people stare at you like a UFO just landed on Earth,” Karega said. “They’ll speak to you in mannerisms or talk about proper English.”
Karega stressed the importance of the emergence of players like Koelzer and Nurse, to continue raising awareness that hockey is not an exclusive sport.
“I think it starts with having that conversation and defying stereotypes,” Karega said. “Then analyzing the nature of access to certain sports.”
In 2012, William Douglas founded a blog named the Color of Hockey after Joel Ward received racist threats when he scored a series-clinching goal for the Washington Capitals against the Boston Bruins. Douglas said it was important to not just identify minorities within the sport but to understand they can be resources for exposing “problems with diversity and issues where race can be involved.”
Koelzer, who grew up outside Philadelphia, and Nurse, who is from Hamilton, Ontario, have not been afraid to confront race throughout their careers. In high school, when Koelzer still played on a boys’ team, an opponent directed a racial slur at her. Koelzer responded by hitting the aggressor across the head, showing that his ignorance would not be tolerated.
“Usually, the game of hockey has been very good to me,” Koelzer said. “When that does happen, I have an extreme sense of pride for who I am and where I came from. I do have that kind of attitude where I’m not going to let anyone put me down and try to rise above me just based on something like that.”
Nurse comes from one of Canada’s best-known sports families. Her father, Roger, was a lacrosse star. Her cousin Kia Nurse has won two national titles playing basketball at Connecticut. Kia’s brother, Darnell Nurse, is a top defender for the Edmonton Oilers.
Before a game in New York this month, Darnell Nurse said Jarome Iginla was a major influence during his youth. He sees a similar opportunity for Sarah Nurse as she continues her career.
Despite her family’s reputation, Sarah Nurse said opponents had sarcastically asked how she discovered hockey or if she was adopted.
Recently, black athletes at Wisconsin have unified to address racial injustice on campus. Like many athletes there, Nurse posted a statement this month that condemned a student who wore a mask of President Barack Obama with a noose around the neck to a Wisconsin football game.
The statement also referred to episodes in which racial slurs had been used against black athletes and to discrimination in the classroom by students and professors.
“Just with the climate of the country right now, it’s a national issue,” Nurse said. “As student-athletes, we want to make a difference on our campus and in our community if we can.”
Nurse and Koelzer are focused on their senior seasons and have not decided if they will turn pro. The NWHL is in financial straits, and much of 2017 will be focused on the 2018 Olympics. But wherever their careers lead, they appear comfortable using their influence to effect change, much in the way the U.S. women’s national soccer team and WNBA players have addressed social issues.
“I definitely take pride in it,” Koelzer said. “I’m happy to have that on my shoulders, and I’m happy to kind of carry that weight. It means that I’ve made something. It means that I’ve done something.”