From group chat to non-profit: The evolution of BGHC

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Amanda McGee
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If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
Renee Hess created BGHC to unite Black hockey fans.
BGHC provides financial aid to Black femme hockey players.
BGHC is working to provide safe spaces for Black women and girls in all levels and aspects of hockey.

Establishing a community

Renee Hess was new to the hockey community when she first entered it over a decade ago. Noticing that there was a lack of Black presences, she created a group chat with the intent to bring Black women hockey fans together.

“I was looking for a community, I was looking for friends to hang out with and talk hockey,” Hess told Hockey of Tomorrow.

What started off as a group chat has evolved into a renowned non-profit hockey organization. In 2018, Hess founded Black Girl Hockey Club (BGHC) to provide Black girls and women with a safe space within all aspects of hockey.

“We started in the group chat and later we decided we wanted to get together to go see a game,” said Hess, BGHC Founder and Executive Director.

After putting out a call out on social media, Hess arranged a meet-up for members to attend a Washington Capitals game. Hess, who resides in California, travelled to Washington to meet the group. Towards the end of 2019, Hess filed for non-profit status.

Renee Hess at a game.
Renee Hess attending a hockey game.

Providing resources

“At the very beginning, the first thing that we wanted to address was the gatekeeping in hockey,” Hess said. Although there are multiple layers of gatekeeping in the sport, Hess explained that the high cost prevents many Black youths from playing.

Through BGHC’s Scholarship Program, Black femme hockey players around the world aged between nine and 18 are provided with financial assistance to subsidize the costs to play. These scholarships were established to encourage Black women to pursue hockey opportunities, as Hess described how they are often underrepresented in the sport.

Currently, BGHC offers four scholarships worth $5,000, $3,000, $1,000, and $500. Between 2021 and 2022, $62,000 in scholarships were awarded to 30 hockey players.

The scholarships are awarded three times a year in the fall, winter, and summer. BGHC offers scholarships in the summer due to the costly amount to attend training camps that are held in the off-season.

On June 1, the latest summer scholarship recipients were announced. All seven recipients were awarded equipment through BGHC’s partnership with Bauer and three players received a total of $5,000.

“We're hoping to get in some fundraising this summer so that we can continue to give out scholarships and just keep these girls in hockey as long as they want to be playing,” said Hess.

Toronto Jr. Aeros hockey player and scholarship recipient Dayton O'Donoghue was approached by Bauer to become one of their ambassadors. O’Donoghue’s partnership with Bauer allowed her to choose a non-profit organization to give a $100,000 equipment grant to. She decided to allocate the grant to BGHC, which will now go to Black girls and women in need of hockey equipment.

For Black professionals seeking to enter the sports industry, BGHC offers their ‘Leadership and Development Program’ where masterclasses are hosted by sports specialists.

“Our Leadership and Development program is a mentorship program where we connect folks who work in hockey spaces directly to young Black professionals of any gender, who are interested in a particular field,” Hess explained.

Throughout 2021 and 2022, BGHC held nine mentorship programs. Through this initiative, Hess is hopeful to encourage Black folks to approach careers in sports through learning various sets of industry skills, tips, and business strategies.

“This is an avenue for them to get into this space,” Hess said.

BGHC at a hockey game meet-up

Getting uncomfortable

Aside from representation in the sport being an important factor in attracting Black youth to play hockey, Hess also believes in revising existing infrastructures and policies in addition to creating new ones.

“It's really important for these kids to have that representation, but also for companies and organizations to actually create policies that are going to have those safe spaces remain safe,” said Hess. “It's really important that we, who are in this space, build up policies and create infrastructure for these kids to have a solid foundation for when they come into hockey.”

BGHC is committed to connecting with teams and organizations that have taken the Get Uncomfortable pledge. “If a team has taken the pledge and they've connected with us in that way, then we will reach out to them to see if they want to hook up and do something together during the season,” said Hess.

The BGHC Get Uncomfortable Advocacy Campaign is aimed to challenge allies to be committed to establishing anti-racist atmospheres within and outside of professional hockey spaces. The campaign will enter its fourth year in September and there are over 8,000 signatures.

“Our Get Uncomfortable advocacy campaign started with a pledge for our hockey allies to get uncomfortable and talk about anti-racism in hockey,” said Hess.

The three preliminary objectives of the campaign include encouraging the hockey community to welcome Black players and fans, employing Black individuals to diversify hockey at all levels, and educating the hockey community through partnerships with anti-racist leaders, advocates, players, and fans.

Hess has worked with the NHL in various capacities, with over 10 teams having signed the pledge to make hockey welcoming for Black girls and women.

“We’re looking forward to how we can grow our partnerships, particularly with certain NHL teams that we've been working with for a while, and to keep those conversations going on what we can do together as a community,” said Hess.

BGHC continues to host events in different cities, with the aim to educate individuals surrounding racism in hockey and establish a sense of community within different regions. These meet-ups are hosted in a different fashion every time, ranging from panel discussions to mingle events. For the most part, either before or after a BGHC event, the group will attend a hockey game together.

“It's just really fun to go to a game with Black Girl Hockey Club,” said Hess.

On April 12, Hess attended TSN’s Accelerate Women’s Hockey Panel to discuss working towards equity in hockey at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Prior to the panel, BGHC was invited to watch Canada play USA in the 2023 IIHF Women's World Championship on April 10.

Social media has greatly assisted BGHC in establishing a community across borders. “Social media makes it so the community is so much tighter and we're able to connect immediately,” said Hess.

Despite BGHC being based in the United States, the organization is able to connect with hockey fans and players across the globe. “I use social media to connect with people and to find people all over, not just in America, but all over the world who are interested in hockey,” said Hess.

With a Twitter following of over 30,000, Hess said BGHC was able to connect with the Kenya Ice Lions, the only hockey team based in Kenya.

BGHC also utilizes their platform to bring attention to initiatives established by other organizations working to make hockey available for everyone. “It seems counterintuitive to community-building to hoard our audience,” said Hess.

“It's important for all of us to unite so that we can continue to make sure that hockey is for everyone, not just Black girls, not just Asian girls, but everyone.”

In November 2022, Black Girl Hockey Club was brought to Canada by Toronto Six defender Saroya Tinker. Just recently, BGHC Canada hosted a Spring Fling gala on April 28 in Toronto.

As BGHC continues to expand, members are aiming to help change hockey into a sport for everyone. Today, Black Girl Hockey Club consists of over 40 volunteers working to provide education, support, and scholarship opportunities to make hockey more available and safe for Black women and girls.

“You don't have to be Black and you don't have to be a girl to be part of Black Girl Hockey Club, but you have to support our mission,” Hess said.

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