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‘I want to go to BC, I want to help change a program’: An Interview with BC WIH Alum Blake Bolden

NHL Black History Month Truck Tour Photo by Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images

Blake Bolden’s career has been nothing short of illustrious & decorated. As a defenseman for the Boston College women’s hockey team from 2009-2013, Bolden scored 82 points in 139 games and captained the team her senior year, earning Hockey East Defensive Player of the Year and All-American honors.

After graduating from BC, Bolden went on to play professional women’s hockey, becoming the first Black professional women’s hockey player to play in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the National Women’s Hockey League.

With the Boston Blades of the CWHL, she competed in the first CWHL All-Star Game and later helped them win the Clarkson Cup in 2015. In 2015, Bolden joined the NWHL’s Boston Pride and helped them capture the league’s inaugural Isobel Cup. She then spent a year in Switzerland playing for the HC Lugano’s women’s team, leading all defenders in scoring with 27 points in 20 games. She returned to the NWHL after a year overseas and played for the Buffalo Beauts. In May 2019, she joined the #ForTheGame movement with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, a group of players advocating for the promotion and elevation of professional women’s hockey.

In early 2020, Bolden was named a pro scout for the Los Angeles Kings, becoming the second woman and the first Black woman to be an NHL scout. Alongside being a scout, she is a growth & inclusion specialist on the community relations side of the organization, helping to grow the game of hockey.

We sat down with Blake this week to discuss her time at BC, her professional hockey career and work with the LA Kings — both on the scouting side & the growth and inclusion side. We also talked about the work that has been done and needs to be done to make hockey a more inclusive & diverse sport.

Can you talk a little bit about how you got into hockey & how you started playing?

Yeah, I started playing when I was six years old. I got into hockey because my mother’s boyfriend worked part time for the Cleveland Lumberjacks in the [International Hockey League] and he used to bring me there and because he was working in security, I could go to the games, I could go to the locker room. I remember being with my uncle in these executive box suites with popcorn and all the candy and treats and it was just like going to an amusement park.

I just loved the game from that point on and one day we were driving home from a game or something like that and I turned to him and I asked if I could learn how to play [hockey] and he was so excited that we immediately drove to Play It Again Sports and picked up all of this second hand gear and from there [he] just threw me on the ice.

I know it’s been a while, but if you remember — why did you choose BC?

It hasn’t been that long [laughs]. (Author’s note: Everything pre-pandemic was a long time ago, to be honest.)

I chose BC for a few different reasons, and I think I have three [big ones]. The first was that I was playing on a youth hockey team and I got a chance to go to the Beantown classic. I walked into Boston [and] was going down Quincy Market with my dad and seeing all the t-shirts and paraphernalia that you could get from all the prestigious amazing colleges that were in Boston, I was like wow this city is amazing. The energy and the vibe was good and I liked that from that point on. And I also liked the colors, so I was like okay, BC, I like that!

The second thing was that I went on to make this camp or this clinic — it was this USA Hockey tryout for every kid that was registered under USA Hockey, and it was hosted in Rochester. And Katie King [Crowley], who is the coach of the [BC] women’s team was there and I met her and she brought out all her medals. She’s a [three-time] Olympic medalist — she won the first [gold] in 1998 in Nagano — and I was just amazed by her and I thought she was the coolest person ever so I was obsessed with BC again, for the second time.

And the third thing, I was in high school and I went away to boarding school at a place called Northwood in Lake Placid, New York and I saw BC play Minnesota Duluth in the Frozen Four and they went into three overtimes — they lost, but it was right around the corner from my school and I was like this Boston stuff keeps popping up into my life! I watched them lose, and I thought — I had been getting all of these interest letters and phone calls from different colleges saying “hey Blake, do you want to come here? Do you want to come to Minnesota, do you want to come to Wisconsin,” and I was like “no, I don’t want to do that, I want to go to BC, I want to help change a program, I want to be a big fish in maybe a smaller pond and I think the coach is amazing and the city is amazing!” And that is my very long answer for why I chose BC.

Going off of that, can you talk about what playing at BC was like?

Playing at BC was awesome. I had high hopes for the school just because it was so beautiful the first time I visited. I had done my official visit and one of my friends and teammates Kelli Stack is from Cleveland too so I just had high expectations. And they were in the top ten as far as rankings, and I was like okay we’re going to go in there, we’re going to win Hockey East, we’re going to win Beanpots, we’re going to win [the National Championship], we’re going to win it all and it’s going to be great!

My first year we lost almost every single game, it was very hard to even tie a game — it was terrible, we got our butts kicked, but it was a good learning curve for me just to have this sudden high school to college [transition] and be like “skrrt pump the breaks, you’re not all that and a bag of chips.” I did a lot of growing up that year and then from that point on, we got Kelli Stack back because she was at the Olympics and Molly Schaus our goaltender and we just were turned upside down. We just flipped a switch and were like yeah no, we’re that winning team that we’re supposed to be and from that moment on it was just all success and all scoring and winning and it was really fun.

Were there any moments that really stuck out to you during your time at BC, either hockey related or not?

I wasn’t so much a social butterfly, I kind of was really strict with my regimen as far as practice [went], I had to get all my schoolwork done of course and we were always going somewhere — we were on the road a lot. And I was just focused a lot on sports and school, so not a lot of crazy fun memories. I think that the Boston Marathon was always a fun day for the entire school, that was always something to look forward to because I had never seen anything like that as a kid growing up.

I made some really great friends outside of my team which was nice because when you’re on a team you find that you’re in this bubble – you guys eat together, you work out together, you play together, you room together; so it was really nice for me to make a cultural switch and hang out with people on the football team or the [men’s and women’s] basketball teams and just kind of get involved that way.

So after graduating, you played professional hockey for a few years; first with the CWHL and then the NWHL, before playing overseas with the SWHL — can you talk about the experience of playing professional women’s hockey in three different leagues?

My experience playing professional women’s hockey is… it’s interesting, because you think whenever you’re a professional anything sports-wise, it’s like the red carpet is rolled out, you’re getting all the dollars — and it was a grind, it was truly a grind! I had a full time job, I was practicing at 10:00 at night, then I was driving on a bus for 10 hours to go to Toronto or somewhere to play a hockey game, so it was hard. But I was doing it because I loved playing hockey and I didn’t want to stop. And that was my driving force every single year — to say what can I do next, how can I push myself out of my comfort zone a little bit? Which is the reason I went over to Switzerland just to switch things up and to see how I could succeed somewhere where I had no rooted anything - no family, no language, no nothing. And in all of that time playing professionally, I’ve been blessed and it’s been really great.

2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic - Women’s Hockey Classic Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Going off of that, there’s been a lot of conversation lately about the direction of professional women’s hockey now — from your perspective where do you think the game should go or needs to go from here?

The game needs to be accessible to anyone who is interested in hockey or women playing sports. The thing that would frustrate me the most is that I would be walking through the airport in my athletic swag — whatever that would be — and someone would pull up to me and be like “do you run track, do you do this, do you do that” and I’d be like “no, I play professional women’s ice hockey.” And they’d be like “What? Women play ice hockey? There’s a professional women’s league?” and I’d be like, “yes, there is! And I put my heart and soul into it so stop disrespecting me right now!”

But yeah, I just think it needs to be more accessible and talked about more and funded more and have more resources to be successful. And right now we’re at this dichotomy where we have two different leagues and I foresee it being one and it is the best product and it will bring the best fans and we can go from there.

Can you talk a little bit about what it was like announcing the PWHPA game on NBCSN and what that meant to you?

It was so cool to me. I was having a lot of pinch me moments because —

This whole year for me has just been insane for me, right, I’ve had my own hockey stick come out, I’ve had opportunities like calling a game at MSG alongside Kenny Albert, watching my friends and former teammates and people I’ve played against playing the game that they love and pushing the needle a little bit further for women in sports. So it was amazing for me to be able to do that. It was nerve racking — again, I was definitely put out of my comfort zone and was told there’s some learning to do in this field of television and entertainment, but I’m glad that I did it and I hope I can do it again.

Pivoting a bit, you were named a scout for the Kings last year which was really groundbreaking! Can you talk through how you got involved with them and joined the organization?

Yeah, so I was going up to a Black Girl Hockey Club event because I wanted to hang out with Renee Hess and her BGHC family and I had never done that before. They had come and visited me in Nashville for the [NWHL] All-Star Game and I just wanted to repay the thank you and hang out with them in person.

I had also never been to the Staples Center in Los Angeles or seen the LA Kings play. Upon doing that, we were walking through the tunnel and getting an amazing tour from BGHC and management from the Kings, and then lo and behold Luc Robitaille comes through the tunnel and introduces himself to the group and I was starstruck. I was like “oh my gosh, that’s Luc Robitaille, I don’t know what to do, I want to say hi, do I say hi?”

And one of my friends was like “Blake you’re going to go say hi.” Kwame Mason, Soul On Ice producer & creator, was like we’re going up there and we’re going to say hi. So I introduced myself to [Robitaille] and he was just so charismatic and so easy to talk to and he said to me “oh I know all about what you guys are doing, I think that’s really commendable and you guys should be very proud of yourselves” and then was just like, “hey do you ever think about being a pro scout?” And I said “no, but that’s very interesting to me, because I’m out in Southern California, I’m doing a lot of coaching and I have my Blake Bolden Athletics program and mentorship but being a scout sounds interesting to me!”

So he said send me your resume, here’s my email — he verbally told me his email, so I had to remember it — and from there we went into interviews and I met Rob Blake and the rest of the crew and it happened really fast but it was in the middle of the season in 2020 when I started and I watched my first game January 3. I just got dropped into it, and have been learning ever since.

What was scouting like this past year during the pandemic, especially when games were being held without any outside spectators? Has it gotten better recently?

It has gotten better recently for sure. I think that I was getting to a point where I was feeling comfortable at the beginning of January, it took me a full month to really figure out the scheduling and the ins and outs of how to plan and prep and do game reports and all that stuff. Then once March hit my life kind of was stopped abruptly like everyone else’s and I had to say, “okay well, there’s no season for me to scout what am I going to do,” and I chose to watch the games that I had missed before my start so I could learn the players and get to know them more. Luckily [later that year] with patience hockey started back up and it was a lot of just watching online — and that takes a level of intensity out of watching the game because you’re not in it, you don’t have that environment and you don’t feel the energy of the players and can’t really see a lot of the intangibles that you want to see often, but you look for other things — you look for skill, you look for speed. And you can see, as you’re on camera watching the game, you can see plays come out because you have this eagle eye vantage point. So there are pros and cons to both, it’s been challenging but we’re evolving and we’re learning together as a group and trying to make the product on the ice for the Kings.

Can you talk about what it was like being in the “war room” during the draft this past year?

So I actually was not in the war room at all — I was in my living room when the draft was going on. (Author’s note: oops!)

And I’m so much of a rookie as to I didn’t even really know exactly what was going to happen because if you give everybody all these little tidbits they could spread out to people that you don’t want to know what’s happening, so our manager Rob Blake is very organized and strict about what he wants. So I was at home, I was in my living room, I ordered takeout and I was watching on the screen and getting really excited about it! I think as I start to be more comfortable as things start to be a little more normalized I will be more impactful in those decisions. But for now I’m just trying to soak everything up and know as many players as I can so when I am asked about a specific thing I know who and when and everything else there is to know.

Along with scouting, you’ve also been doing diversity & inclusion work on the community side of the Kings organization — how do you balance that work with scouting, and so far what has it entailed?

Yeah, I think you balance it because you just prioritize it. I love the game and as someone who’s grown up in Cleveland and seen not a lot of people of color playing the game I knew that it was a passion of mine to dive into the Los Angeles community and see how we could collaborate and get hockey sticks into more nontraditional markets.

And I think that was something that the LA Kings saw in me before I became a scout. They knew that I was passionate about it based on who I am as a person so they asked me: “Hey Blake, what do you think of growth and inclusion? What do you think about changing the trajectory of our fan base inside of Staples Center and making it more inclusive?” and I was like “Heck yes! This is right up my alley, like I’m so passionate about it.” So right now it’s a lot of partnering with a lot of different organizations in the city. Our most recent exciting news is Alliance LA who we’ve been working with a lot over the past year almost — eleven pro teams coming together to combat social injustice and provide sustainable funding to different neighborhoods and programs to help the kids and the youth in our city. And that’s been really fun to learn and to network and to continue to put hockey in the forefront of everybody’s mind because in LA there’s a lot of basketball, there’s a lot of football, and I want hockey to be up there just as much as anybody else.

What does it mean to you to be a role model to young women of color — athlete or not?

What does it mean to me - it means a lot. It means that people are ready for this progressive change and people are interested in hearing what someone like me has to say and so I take that with a lot of gratitude and I just want to be the best version of myself so I could just give to those that are willing to listen or willing to be inspired. It’s something that I had to evolve into becoming since 2015 when I became the first Black professional women’s hockey player — I wasn’t necessarily aware of the impact until young, diverse girls and boys would come up to me and say “I’m coming to this game because I love who you are, I see myself in you,” and that’s been kind of the motto in a sense for representation, you know.

Having me on the cover of USA Hockey Magazine — having someone of color on that cover who’s probably never been on that cover in the history of USA Hockey magazine, let’s be honest, it is just in your face. And my motto is also “Be Bold,” so I always want to have people be comfortable with themselves, push themselves out of their comfort zones and don’t fear failure because there’s no such thing. If in my life, in all the things that I’ve been able to achieve, I’m able to inspire someone out there then go for it and I’ll be there cheering you along all the way!

Why was starting your own business, Blake Bolden Athletics, to work with young female athletes important to you?

I thought it was important to me, starting my own business, because I found that a lot of the time when I was coaching it was all about the physical, it was all about the on ice capabilities, and the strength. And I felt that we were missing this mental piece, this connection and mentorship piece of just having a role model and having someone who’s been through what you’ve been through and can help guide you and your parents or whoever’s in your support system to say “okay, this is your goal, let’s make steps to see how we can get there.”

And I think that is something that, with a lot of distractions in this day and age, can be missed and I just wanted to provide that opportunity for those who are interested. It’s been a privilege because I’ve been able to work with girls as young as nine years old and interacting with them and seeing how they grow over the years, or girls who are in college that are trying to just balance being a student athlete and balance being a fourth line player and trying to mentally turn on their switch to be whatever kind of player they want to be. So I thought that creating something like that would be very valuable and I feel that it has because now you’re seeing a lot more mentorship opportunities, a lot more things happen that isn’t just: “let’s do this program and see how fit you can be; let’s go on the ice and run you into the ground and burn you out,” it’s like — whoa we gotta check what’s up under the hood before we can do anything.

Over the years, what progress — if any — have you seen in hockey regarding diversity & inclusion, and where do you maybe hope to see hockey/hockey culture improve over the coming years?

Yes, I have seen small improvements, right, I think that we’re all now aware of the lack of diversity in our sport and I think this past year has forced us to focus on it because that’s all we’re talking about right now.

As someone like me who’s not talking about it because this is a thing to talk about — I live it every single day and I’ve been passionate about [hockey] since I was six years old. So I think I’ve seen a lot of change for the better - the NHL’s doing a good job right now just trying to make it a movement and not so much a moment which is just like this plan of execution to bring diverse fanbases in and empower our players to want to speak up on whatever they feel called to speak out on and just understanding that diversity isn’t just about race, it’s also diversity in thought and ideology. And that is going to evolve our game and make it cool and make it special and cross pollinate with different sports. It’s not just ice hockey on this island that’s just this white dominated sport. We can meld, and we can evolve together through sport and that’s what I hope the sport will get to one day.