Ask Blake Bolden how she envisions the future of hockey, and her answer is firm: “The more women and the more people of color that are passionate about the game and experienced in the game can help shape our future to be better.”
The Cleveland, Ohio, native’s career comes with an impressive list of accomplishments, including representing the U.S. as part of two gold medal-winning teams at the IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championship in 2008 and 2009, three Frozen Four appearances in her four years at Boston College, being the first Black athlete drafted in the NWHL and the CWHL, and becoming the first Black female scout in the NHL when she was hired by the LA Kings in 2020. Suffice to say, Bolden’s resume speaks for itself.
When USAHockey.com recently caught up with Bolden, she reminisced on the historic contributions she saw growing up from her idols Willie O’Ree and Angela Ruggiero, who were trailblazers in their own right, breaking barriers for Black athletes and for women.
“Willie’s just an incredible light. He’s a beacon of hope. He’s so incredibly open and wise with how he speaks and how he engages with children,” said Bolden, who went from hearing O’Ree’s inspirational hockey journey told through word of mouth to hearing it from the legend himself. The pair both live in San Diego and have a special relationship as two pioneers in their professional leagues.
“He enjoys it, and he’s youthful even though he’s in his late 80s, and he’s just an incredible human to be around.”
Bolden’s youth hockey days were spent with the Cleveland Barons and Ohio Flames, and when she was nearly seven years old, she watched the 1998 U.S. Olympic Women’s Hockey Team win gold in Nagano, Japan.
“Women are very strong and powerful, and I think there wasn’t a lot of light on that when I was growing up,” said Bolden. “When I got to see the 1998 team and go through the autograph line and meet Angela Ruggiero and people that I looked up to, that was life changing for me. It was something tangible, that I can kind of potentially see myself going down that path.”
Bolden has partnered with Winmark and Play It Again Sports, creating the “emBolden Her Mentorship Program,” which gives her an opportunity to be a role model just like the ones she was lucky to have growing up.
She remains a fierce advocate for having transparent discussions with her mentees and wants them to know that to be the best athlete they can be, the work does not stop on the ice.
“Now that I’m out in the community a lot, I really see myself in these young girls and I see how they sometimes struggle with anxiety or struggle everyday dealings of life and sports,” said Bolden. “I wanted to tie in the lessons I’ve learned along the way, bring in some of my amazing peers that I got to play professional women’s hockey with along my journey, and just have a really fruitful discussion and sharing for six months.”
Bolden can remember when she was younger, being the only girl on her hockey team. Along with not having many hockey athletes that looked like her to go to for support, Bolden remembers struggling to find where she fit within the sport. Her works strives to change that for her mentorship group and for the next generation of athletes.
“We had about 30 girls, ages 13 to 16, and we just spoke on really goal setting, fighting through adversity,” said Bolden. “A lot of the girls were the only girls on their hockey teams. Just giving them some information and sharing the experience of what I went through when I was a young girl growing up – it was really important for me to just give back to them.”
Bolden’s playing career has seen her wear many different jerseys, but none more important than the USA jersey she wore when she competed in the Under-18 Women’s World Championship in 2008 and 2009, tournaments in which her team won gold both times.
“I remember being told when I was a teenager about that opportunity, because my biggest dream was to be an Olympian. I told my mom and dad that when I was a young girl and I saw the 1998 team,” said Bolden, about her opportunity to represent Team USA on a prominent stage.
“I said, ‘if that’s the highest that women can be in hockey, then that’s what I want to do,’” said Bolden. “To be able to wear that jersey and represent my country, to play overseas and be able to travel and experience hockey and meet friends that you’ll make and have for a lifetime."
For Bolden, it’s not lost on her that for many girls, watching her play in the NWHL was the first time they saw a hockey player that looked like her.
Bolden can recall sitting on the couch as a young athlete, watching her favorite players skate, and feeling inspired by them. When it became her turn to impact the next generation, it’s been something that has affected her deeply.
“It came to 2015 and I was announced as the first Black player in the National Women’s Hockey League. I was like holy cow, this is huge, right?” recalled Bolden. “It’s really important for me to just sit here and listen to these young Brown and Black girls that come to me for autographs and are occasionally telling me I’m the reason why they started to play. It’s an honor to be in this position. It’s really impacted me probably in more ways than I understood.”
Working in Southern California, Bolden has gotten a front row seat to seeing the game diversify at all levels. Her work as a scout is noteworthy in more ways than one, with young girls not only having examples of ways to excel on the ice, but ways to be a changemaker off the ice as well.
“I have to pinch myself every now and then and be like ‘wow, I really am a pillar in this game and in this sport,” said Bolden, who now asks herself, “‘So now what do you want to do with it? Do you want to be comfortable, or push the needle and blaze more trails ahead?’”
Through it all, Bolden has continuously had one mantra on repeat in her head: “If you can see it, you can be it.”
Bolden holds this phrase close in her work as a scout, and now as a mentor for emBolden Her. As she continues to blaze a trail in the game of hockey, she hopes the generation after her will have more women they can look to.
“I think that quote is something that a lot of my peers in the hockey community, women especially, say, because they know how powerful and influential the 1998 team was,” said Bolden. “It’s important to be able to have something that you can strive to be. If you don’t know it’s there because you can’t see it, then your imagination can’t conjure it up.”
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