Equity on the Ice Last year's social unrest inspires conference commissioners and players to make hockey for everyone

Growing up playing boy’s ice hockey was incredible for Nikki Harnett in her development as a goaltender, but her mental health suffered.

“Hockey has not always been the most welcoming place. I know that as a woman and a queer person, and I’ve seen it with my teammates of color,” said Harnett, who will be a junior goalie for New Hampshire and hopes to become a civil rights attorney. “I want to change this sport to make a change in someone’s life.”

Nikki Harnett, a goalie at New Hampshire who serves on the Student-Athlete Committee on Mutual Respect on campus, wants to change her sport to make hockey more welcoming to people from all backgrounds. (Photos courtesy of UNH Athletics)

Hailing from just a half-hour west of where George Floyd died in May 2020 at the hands of Minneapolis police, Harnett was struck by the social justice protests that swept her home state and the nation last summer. She was not alone in her sport. Floyd’s death fueled conversations on diversity, equity and inclusion among conference commissioners across Division I men’s and National Collegiate women’s ice hockey.

Questions of what they were doing to support diversity, equity and inclusion in their sport dominated the discussions. What should and could they do to promote equality in college hockey? How could they even get started?

“My commissioner colleagues and myself had in-depth conversations about what was happening in our country, on our campuses, and how college hockey might fit into the picture,” said Jennifer Flowers, Western Collegiate Hockey Association vice president and women’s league commissioner for the conference.

In September, Flowers and Harnett were among a passionate group of 27 student-athletes, coaches and administrators who began meeting every other week to define sustainable and realistic ways to champion cultural change across the college hockey community. This group would form a committee now known as College Hockey for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

“We need to take responsibility for not stepping up and changing the culture sooner,” said Harnett, who also serves on the Student-Athlete Committee on Mutual Respect at New Hampshire. “We still have some work to do to make a change in the sport and get everyone on board.”

During its first news conference in February, CH4DEI shared its mission statement: to create positive cultural change across college hockey through communication, education, allyship and advocacy. The group, which includes representatives from each of the 11 Division I and National Collegiate hockey conferences, works together for a better tomorrow in the sport, one shift at a time.

Since the news conference, CH4DEI has narrowed its collective focus on spreading social justice awareness into three areas of the game.

First, the initiative wants college hockey programs to have conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion that haven’t been had in the sport. Flowers says CH4DEI recognizes that it “must do a better job of internally educating coaches and staff on these topics to better communicate with their players and staff and learn where players feel safe and not safe.”

The second focus for CH4DEI is educating the rest of the college hockey fan base on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“That’s a unique thing about hockey: We have a very passionate, very loyal subset of people that follow the sport,” Flowers said. “We want not only diversity on the ice and behind the bench; we want diversity in the stands.”

The Division I Men's Ice Hockey Championship was held at KeyBank Center on April 13, 2019, in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Third, the group seeks to educate youth through external youth hockey programs in communities where CH4DEI teams play.

“We find ourselves uniquely positioned as a sport to make college athletics better,” said Flowers, who also serves as the committee’s chair. “We’re big enough to make an impact, yet small enough to do it as one sport.”

Obtaining quality equipment, properly maintaining that equipment (for example, blade sharpening), paying for team and rink fees, and paying travel expenses to get to and from an ice rink make active participation in the sport expensive.

Beyond the socioeconomic barriers lie cultural barriers, too.

“This initiative would have made the recruiting process easier because players — especially players of color — wouldn’t have to be thinking about being accepted for who they were if they knew that there are people supporting them and that they’re not coming into (college athletics) alone.”

— Nikki Harnett

During her recruiting process, Harnett was looking for schools and coaches who would welcome a queer athlete. Had CH4DEI existed at the time of her recruitment, she says, she wouldn’t have had to think about whether a program would accept her for who she was. Her focus would have simply been on her love for the game of hockey.

“This initiative would have made the recruiting process easier because players — especially players of color — wouldn’t have to be thinking about being accepted for who they were if they knew that there are people supporting them and that they’re not coming into (college athletics) alone,” she said.

Harnett hopes that CH4DEI’s awareness and education efforts — which are to be finalized and made public in September — can translate in numbers. While this year has seen the highest number of Black women in college hockey, she hopes those numbers continue to grow and that the sport continues to see more coaches of color and more diversity.

Approximately 30% of NCAA men's and women's ice hockey student-athletes were Black, Indigenous or other players of color in 2019-20.

Bemidji State’s Tina Kampa was one of those female players of color.

Originally from Bogota, Colombia, the 2021 graduate who played defense for Bemidji State was adopted into a white family from Minnesota at an early age. While Kampa acknowledges how relocating to the “state of hockey” gave her access to the sport she may not have had if she stayed in Colombia, she does think there are still areas in which to diversify hockey in her home state.

“If I wasn’t in Minnesota, who knows if I would have played hockey. But even in Minnesota, there are a lot of BIPOC kids that are interested in the game,” Kampa said of the youth in the state who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. “They just don’t know how to get involved and get the training they need to move on to the next levels.”

Desire to get involved with the sport can be born from identifying with a prominent player. Most of Kampa’s idols growing up were male and white until she saw Minnesota’s Kelli Blankenship hit the ice. By offering exposure through external youth hockey programs, Kampa thinks CH4DEI can play a pivotal role in broadening accessibility to hockey and diversifying its culture.

“I hope that one day in the near future, hockey is a sport that everybody is willing and wanting to be a part of, whatever that looks like, due to the inclusive environment and how participating in the game makes them feel,” Kampa said.

Like Kampa, Jasper Weatherby, who will be a senior forward at North Dakota, comes from a racially diverse family. His younger brother, who is Black, was adopted from Costa Rica. He sees his role on the CH4DEI committee as not only about sowing the seeds of equality and acceptance in hockey but rather society at large. Racism, bigotry and sexism have no place in this world, he says, especially in the game of hockey.

“A lot of times in hockey, you’re cast as the robotic character of ‘driven athlete with no personality or opinions outside of hockey,’ and I challenge that,” Weatherby said. “Hockey is for everyone. We’re people first and athletes second.”

At North Dakota’s season-opening game Dec. 2, Weatherby and teammate Jacob Bernard-Docker knelt for the national anthem in solidarity with the victims of race-related acts of hate and other social injustices from the past summer. Weatherby uses his platform as an elite athlete in the sport — specifically as a white male with real prospects of playing professional hockey — to bring awareness not to his accolades but social issues.

“Being in my position, especially because hockey is very white and male-dominated, I believe this initiative is an opportunity to shine a light on how we as a sport can break that mold,” he said.

Weatherby seeks to continue educating himself on diversity, equity and inclusion through active involvement with CH4DEI. He believes whatever your race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity, CH4DEI will empower you to be yourself on and off the ice.

Weatherby says he’s “lucky to be in this opportunity” and feels that any good he can do is helpful.

“I think when people can be who they are, it’s the best thing in the world,” Weatherby said. “It doesn’t get any better than when people can be truly happy in their body and their skin.”

“I think when people can be who they are, it’s the best thing in the world.”

— Jasper Weatherby

Photos of Jen Flowers courtesy of WCHA; photos of Tina Kampa courtesy of Bemidji State University; photos of Jasper Weatherby courtesy of the University of North Dakota.
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