by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer
On Friday, Jan. 31, the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated their in-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-3, in overtime. Who else but Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby as the one to score just 55 seconds into the five-minute overtime period, claiming Pittsburgh’s 32nd win of the season.
But this game was different. The entire day was different.
The day started at Miller African Centered Academy, a Pittsburgh Public School in the Hill District, as students, most of whom are African American, toured the mobile NHL Black History Hockey Mobile Museum. It possibly was the first true interaction of hockey for many of the students, who got to play hockey in the school’s gym, try on equipment, and talk with Penguins staff members.
The Penguins hosted “Black History Hockey Day” throughout the day and night, as a sport that’s overwhelmingly White seeks to embrace and promote its historical African American contributors. In time, the NHL believes, there could be more Black hockey fans, including those who like it enough to want to attend games.
One of those African Americans who has come to love hockey is Renee Hess. A self-described “academic,” she’s discussed in prior media interviews how she researched all the aspects of the game of hockey, and even started listening to hockey games on the radio. A few years ago, she finally went to a live game, and “I was hooked,” she’s said.
Just one problem. She didn’t see too many Black people, especially Black women, at the games. So, in 2018, she started the “Black Girl Hockey Club,” an organization of Black women (and their families) who attend NHL games around the country and promote the game to fellow African Americans.
Though she resides in Riverside, Calif., Hess loves the Penguins. And when the Pens recently took the ice on Jan. 31 at PPG Paints Arena against the Flyers, Hess and her Black Girl Hockey Club crew were there.
After enjoying the overtime win, the group woke up the next morning, Feb. 1, and joined the Penguins at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, Downtown, as the team presented a showing of the documentary “Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future.” It helped those in attendance better understand the contributions Blacks have made to the game of hockey.
“The Pittsburgh Penguins are excited to celebrate Black players who have played for the Penguins and throughout the National Hockey League,” said Tracey McCants Lewis, the Penguins’ deputy general counsel and director of HR, in a statement to the New Pittsburgh Courier. “It is important to provide youth who are underrepresented in the game of hockey with images of diversity and achievement in the sport. The Pittsburgh Penguins and the NHL are providing that representation to show Black children and all children that ‘Hockey Is For Everyone.’ At the end of this weekend kids will see that they can play hockey, be a hockey fan and even work for a hockey club. Representation matters.”
In addition to the Penguins, NHL teams, from the New York Rangers to the Washington Capitals, from the Los Angeles Kings to the Anaheim Ducks, have welcomed the Black Girls Hockey Club with open arms.
The organization’s first game they attended as a collective was Dec. 15, 2018, where roughly 45 members and their families attended a Washington Capitals home game. The result? The same as when they came to Pittsburgh on Jan. 31—an overtime victory.
Marie Smith, an African American woman and member of the Black Girls Hockey Club, was with the group during a February 2019 game hosted by the New York Rangers. In an interview with the television network MSG, Smith said she saw no reason “why me being Black or me being a girl should deter me or dissuade me from watching something that I find exciting, and thankfully the Black Girls Hockey Club allows me to attend games and talk about hockey online, and not have to feel like I have to justify my fanhood.”
(ABOUT THE TOP PHOTO: STUDENTS FROM MILLER ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, with Penguins staff during “Black History Hockey Day,” held this year on Jan. 31. – Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Penguins)