Professional hocky player Sarah Nurse
Professional hockey player Sophie Jacques

Professional hockey player Mikyla Grant-Mentis
Saroya Tinker, Manager Diversity Equity and Inclusion

Photo credits: PWHL Toronto 

Saturday 27 April 2024

Diversity in the Professional Women’s Hockey League

by Olivia Barrett

From breaking the world attendance record for a women’s hockey game to appointing Saroya Tinker as the manager of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives and Community Engagement, February was a memorable month in the Professional Women’s Hockey League’s (PWHL) inaugural season.

Ottawa and Toronto players share a group pic before a game on 2 January 2024 Photo credit:  PWHL on X

With six teams across Canada and the United States, the PWHL has 157 players from 12 countries. Of these 157, the league only has three Black players, one of which, Nikki Nightengale, is currently a reserve player. Nightengale and Sophie Jaques both play for PWHL Minnesota and Sarah Nurse plays for PWHL Toronto.

Despite being only two months into the season, Jaques and Nurse are leaving their mark on the league. In the most recent matchup between their teams on Feb. 27, Jaques and Nurse both scored two crucial goals; a tying goal to extend the game by Jaques and an overtime winner by Nurse.

Scoring goals is just one of the ways Nurse is flourishing in the league. Through a partnership with Black Girl Hockey Club (BGHC), Nurse has started hosting “Nursey Nights” at select PWHL Toronto home games. Tinker, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives and Community Engagement manager, explained that Nurse approached her about the initiative.

“She wanted to be more involved and impact the girls in more ways,” Tinker said. Nursey Nights invites a group of players in BGHC to a PWHL Toronto home game and gives them the opportunity to meet and speak with Nurse after the game. At the end of the season, all Nursey Night participants will be able to join a Zoom call with her. Tinker added that these opportunities with Nurse serve as a mentorship for the girls.

Tinker is also the co-founder and executive director of BGHC, an organization that aims to provide a welcoming space for Black and racialized women of all ages to play and show their love for hockey. She said she started getting involved with the organization when she was in her final year at Yale University. Tinker got involved with the organization by raising $35,000 for scholarships for its Canadian division, greatly exceeding her initial goal of $5,000.

It was also in her final year of university that Tinker realized the impact of representation in the sport. While talking about the discrimination she faced in the sport, Tinker recalled being at university and contemplating quitting hockey, saying “I wasn’t having a good time with my teammates.”

 “As soon as (Kiersten) Goode came on my team that senior year, I realized the importance of representation and the importance of just having one other person with you,” Tinker added.

While there is little racial diversity throughout the league, many teams have a wide variety of players of various nationalities. In this inaugural season, PWHL Ottawa has been the most diverse team, both racially and in nationalities. However, since the release of Mikyla Grant Mentis in February, Ottawa is no longer the most racially diverse team in the league.

According to PWHL Ottawa coach Carla MacLeod, coaching the most diverse team in the league “is a treat.” She said the team is fortunate to have players from different backgrounds.

“Everyone’s coming in with a story that has brought them to this point and getting to know our group as individuals has been a priority,” MacLeod said. She added that having players from around the world has “bolstered the experience and opportunity.”

However, MacLeod says this has not come without its obstacles. Language barriers have posed some  challenges for the team, but MacLeod said she uses the little Japanese she knows to make Akane Shiga, the only Japanese player in the league, feel more comfortable as she learns English. She said she considers herself lucky that the European players have developed strong English skills throughout their careers.

While diversity in the league may be sparse for now, Tinker said the importance of representation is crucial to her role with the PWHL. She explained that the league is currently working on its polices at the league-level but has been actively involved in the communities around its teams.

From Nursey Nights to theme nights to collaborations with organizations like BGHC, Tinker said she thinks it’s important the league is making these efforts from the start.

“Being a start-up, I think that we’re open and willing to implement these things from the start. … A lot of these other leagues have been in place for so long and need to change their policies and whatnot, but we’re going to be inclusive right from the start,” Tinker said.