Saroya Tinker talks how to make hockey inclusive for all

Saroya Tinker (middle) kneels beside her teammates for the anthem during a round robin game at the 2021 Isobel Cup tournament in Lake Placid. (Twitter)

Hockey has a long way to go to be considered an inclusive sport. Highlighting the accomplishments of Willie O’Ree and Angela James for Black History Month is always great, but in order to make true progress, organizations and individuals should consider what change needs to happen moving forward.

Three of the best steps, right now, to work towards a more inclusive community in hockey are accessibility, education and calling people out on their racism, according to Saroya Tinker of the Metropolitan Riveters.

The rookie is a leading voice for the NWHL in standing up to racism. She’s taken full advantage of her platform as a professional hockey player ever since she was selected 4th overall in the 2020 NWHL draft.

Anyone with access to the Internet and libraries is able to commit to educating themselves. The only effort people need to make is to dedicate the time.

“[Education] is so easy. Google is free,” the 22-year-old said. “There are so many ways to listen to books online now. And that’s another big piece of it, is simply educating the White community around us. As Black hockey players it’s not our job to educate, but at the same time it is important that there is a place for people to find resources if need be.”

In addition to education, there needs to be greater effort from White privileged Canadians to make hockey more accessible for all. The Black population in Canada makes an average household income of $35,310 per year while non-visible minorities make $50,225 on average.

“Obviously hockey’s a very expensive sport,” said Tinker. “It’s not always accessible to everyone, and cost is one of those huge things that eliminates the game of hockey for them. Other things are easier to play. You just need a basketball and some shoes, a soccer ball and a net, whereas with hockey you need all the equipment, transportation, ice time.”

Tinker volunteers with Black Girl Hockey Club (BGHC), where she helps provide young Black hockey players with $1000 to $5000 scholarships to further their hockey career, whether it be registration fees, equipment or transportation.

BGHC is funded by donations and merchandise sales in order to award three rounds of scholarships to Black girls playing hockey per year.

In Fall 2020 they awarded four girls with a total of $10,000 and in Winter 2021 they gave $13,000 to seven girls.

BGHC launched the Get Uncomfortable Campaign and pledge in October, and are currently working on fleshing out the operational aspect of the campaign to keep the momentum up. Over 4,000 people have taken the pledge so far, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, Los Angeles Kings and Toronto Six. Part of BGHC’s donations will also be going toward supporting the campaign’s objectives in the future.

Another thing Tinker preaches is antiracism, which involves calling people out when they’re being racist, whether that be a co-worker, family member, friend, teammate, anyone you hear making a questionable comment.

Saroya Tinker led the NWHL in standing up to Barstool and Erika Nardini after Nardini posted a video on Twitter targeting journalists covering the NWHL.

Standing by the problem without saying anything or being “neutral” contributes to racism.

“There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism,” Ibram X Kendi says in his book, How to Be an Antiracist.

“We need to help continue educating the White community and helping educate them to the sense that they know what they’re doing and how they’re hurting people when they’re being exclusive,” said Tinker.

Tinker experienced this exclusivity through growing up as a biracial hockey player. As early as 12 years old, her teammates were calling her the N-word in the locker room. When she got to Yale University, she played on a team with privileged White teammates who didn’t understand the impacts of socioeconomics, and who demonstrated microaggression towards Tinker.

Tinker notes that having Black friends and role models to look up to could have made all the difference in her upbringing within the hockey community.

The NWHL and NHL are creating more ways for BIPOC players to be contacted, to have their voices heard and to be seen in the sport. With that continued effort will come more inclusivity.  

It’s also important for White players to use their platforms as allies. That support can be as simple as buying a shirt from a small business and wearing it in an Instagram picture, or reading a book and recommending it to a teammate.

“These are all little ways athletes can use their platform in the ways that we should,” said Tinker. “We have so many eyes on us all the time, and so many people asking us questions, that why not use your platform for good?”

She is intentional about encouraging allies in a positive manner that spreads light, kindness and respect.

The Riveters’ team conversation regarding kneeling during the anthem in Lake Placid was no exception. Team captain Madison Packer made sure to initiate the team discussion prior to the tournament. Tinker felt supported no matter her teammates’ decisions, and made a point that she wouldn’t be offended if they didn’t kneel.

“At the end of the day we’re unified and we all wanna win,” Tinker said. “We all wanna win the same thing, we’re all part of the same team. Everybody’s opinion matters, but when it comes down to it, we can all treat each other with respect and kindness and that’s what was stressed in our conversations.”

With more athletes using their platforms, more fans listening and educating themselves, more people donating, more North Americans committing to antiracism, the future of hockey will get better.

Saroya Tinker is at the head of the charge, and won’t slow down any time soon.

“I want other young, Black women to see me as a role model and to see that if you are yourself and you do speak up, that change can come, and I hope to be able to create those changes in the league before [those young players] even get there, before they even have to experience that.”

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