Record crowd shows up for pro women’s hockey

Nikki Nightengale Photo by Charles Hallman

by Charles Hallman, Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

Nikki Nightengale is one of three reserves on the 2024 PWHL Minnesota roster. Each PWHL club can have up to three reserve players, who train exclusively with their teams throughout the season and may be added to rosters during the season.

This arrangement works great for the 5’6” Nightengale, a two-time Division III All-American at Augsburg and a three-time all-MIAC honoree. She is one of only six Auggies in program history to earn three or more all-MIAC honors (2016-20). 

She is currently studying nursing at Saint Catherine’s and plans to graduate later this year. Nightengale said she never envisioned herself a pro hockey player.

“Never in a million years,” admitted the Minnesota rookie. “When I was little, I, like other young girls [playing hockey]. You want to go to the Olympics. Obviously, boys want to go to the NHL, but we didn’t have that growing up.

Meredith Lang
Courtesy of MN Unbounded

Believe it or not, Blacks have been playing hockey for a long, long time.

Besides being the first Black football letterman in the Big 10 when he attended the U of M, Bobby Marshall (1880-1958) was also the first Black athlete to play semi-pro hockey.

La Toya Clarke (2000-04) was the first Black female to play Gopher women’s hockey. She played several pro seasons as well.

Crystalyn Hengler just graduated after six seasons as the only Black player on the Gopher squad.

Kyle Okposo (2007-08) remains the only Black player in the history of men’s hockey at Minnesota. The St. Paul native also played in the NHL (2007-23).

After an all-time high of Blacks playing Division I hockey (43 males in 2016, and 32 females in 2022), the NCAA reported only 36 Black males and 15 Black females playing hockey in 2023.

Less than three percent or about 20 Blacks are in the NHL, and Nightengale is one of four Blacks in the PWHL’s inaugural season that started this month. “I think I’ve seen more and more [Black players] coming up from youth [hockey],” noted Nightengale.

Meredith Lang has two teenage daughters playing hockey. She co-founded Minnesota Unbounded, a local youth hockey program specifically designed for Blacks and other players of color. Her 14-year-old is active as well as her 12 year old daughter “who loves being a part of the game, wants to be a referee or coach,” said the proud mom, who herself was a high school hockey player in her day.

“I think if we can get our communities involved, I think continuing to remove barriers for players of color to have access to the game…we can retain more players of color in hockey, provide that opportunity for them so that they can see themselves playing at the highest level possible,” Lang added.

Nightengale pointed out, “It’s not that super cliche to say hockey is for everyone, because at the end of the day we know that it hasn’t been.”

What about Black hockey fans? They comprise 6.5 percent of all hockey fans. There were but a handful of Black fans among the 13,316 at the Minnesota-Montreal contest January 6, in the Minnesota Wild’s St. Paul arena, a record crowd to ever watch a professional women’s hockey game.  

“It was an amazing opportunity to be part of such a historical day. Grateful to have been asked to be there and so excited to see all that is to come for the PWHL,” said Minnesota Lynx rookie Diamond Miller, who was part of the pre-game festivities and among the handful of Blacks spotted at the game.  

The quest to move hockey from its historically all-White sports status to a more diverse one at all levels still exists.

“We’re trying to grow the game itself,” said Nightengale. 

Record crowd shows up for pro women’s hockey

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