Two hours before the puck drops, a throng of black women is making its way through the tunnels of the Los Angeles Staples Center. A passerby wonders if they're a band playing that night. They're not. They're hockey fans — by now used to the looks they sometimes get when they tell people they're hockey fans.
"This is amazing," says Imani Dean, as she takes a picture of the empty ice at Staples Center. "This is literally the closest I've been to a hockey rink."
Dean, 22, is a longtime hockey fan, but this is her first time at the arena to see her Los Angeles Kings play in person. Some black women like Dean say they often feel uncomfortable going to a game because they've been made to feel they aren't part of the club. Until now.
"Publicly, there are very few black hockey fans and even less female hockey fans, so it's just like, 'Hi, my people!'" Dean says, noting the crowd of black women surrounding her. "It's a sense of community. It's just like kinship, like we've lived similar experiences. That's nice to have."
'I was hooked'
Welcome to Black Girl Hockey Club. It was founded last year by 39-year-old Renee Hess, of Riverside, Calif.
Growing up, Hess says she "wasn't a sports person." Then eight years ago, when she was visiting Pittsburgh, she watched her first hockey game on TV.
"The game is so fast, the players are so skilled," Hess says. "I was hooked."
But the feeling of excitement was tinged with another emotion.
"It is definitely lonely," Hess says. "When you walk into the arena and you're a woman of colour, you're not likely to see very many women of colour that look like you. I have experienced micro aggressions. There is an underlying kind of tension sometimes being a black woman going into a white space."
And Hess says sharing her experiences was a challenge because when she started following the sport she "didn't know a single other black woman" who was a hockey fan.
"So that was something that I wanted to change, that I wanted to do something about," Hess says.
Black women 'under-represented'
What started as an online chat group evolved into Black Girl Hockey Club. Last December, Hess organized the first outing at an NHL game. Since then, several meet-ups at NHL and NWHL games have followed.
"One of the most under-represented demographics in hockey is black women," Hess says. "But we're out there, we're fans, and we're definitely excited to be part of the hockey community."
Black Girl Hockey Club is "all about building a community within the community."
If there was any doubt that inclusiveness is still an issue in hockey, Hess points to the furor that cost one of Canada's hockey icons his job.
"Don Cherry's comments showed that we do need a culture change in hockey and that we do need to acknowledge that there is some very deep-seated racism in the sport of hockey," Hess says. "The culture is steeped in this type of racism. And in order to weed it out, we have to acknowledge it, and then we have to make a change."
Black Girl Hockey Club, she says, "shows that there are people within the hockey culture that want to help facilitate that change."
According to Hess, the club has grown to more than 500 members worldwide. One of its newest recruits is perhaps its highest-profile member: 27-year-old Cleveland native Blake Bolden, the 2019 NWHL Defensive Player of the Year.
Growing up, Bolden says her stepfather would take her to watch the Cleveland Lumberjacks in the now-defunct IHL.
"I loved watching them play," Bolden says. "So I just said, you know, I'm going to pick up a stick and I'm going to try it out."
Bolden played collegiate hockey for Boston College as a defender before being drafted fifth overall by the Boston Blades in the Canadian Women's Hockey League and helped the team win the 2015 Clarkson Cup. Later that year she joined the NWHL and became the first black female pro hockey player in North America.
Make hockey more 'colourful'
But the many accolades have been no bulwark against abuse. Bolden says during her life in hockey she's had to "put on some thick skin" because she's heard it all.
"N-words, those kind of things," Bolden says. "Just rude. Sexually offensive. Racially offensive."
Even now, Bolden says she's one of only three African-American women pro hockey players. (And 61 years after Willie O'Ree became the first black man to play in the NHL, the league still only has about 30 players of African descent.)
In Black Girl Hockey Club, Bolden says she's found a group in which she can both get and give support.
"It's a really good sense of community," Bolden says. "I just hope to continue to inspire every person to want to try the game, just to get it more ... colourful," she says and smiles.
At the most recent Black Girls Hockey Club outing — the L.A. Kings versus the Las Vegas Golden Knights — Bolden's sitting next to one of her proteges: Black Girl Hockey Club's youngest member, 12-year-old Lincoln Brown.
Brown says her brothers all played hockey "so I just followed their footsteps." Brown now plays for the Kings' junior girls' team, and was even chosen to star in a commercial to launch the Kings' new retro jersey. But the blow-back on social media, says Brown's mother Rebecca Warner, has been sexist and racist. For instance, some commented that Brown should be doing ads for the Lakers — L.A.'s basketball team — instead of the Kings.
"Disappointing," Warner says. "You would think that in this time people would be more accepting."
And acceptance, Brown says, is exactly what Black Girl Hockey Club offers.
"Yeah, I think that's important," Brown says. "So we can make the sport more diverse."
It's a little thing, Hess says, but little things turn into big things. One day, perhaps, there will be no need for Black Girl Hockey Club, there will only be Hockey Club. Until then, her message to all black girls who love hockey:
"You have people that look like you out there," Hess says. "We are gathered. We are here. We're a family and we're here for you."