Sarah Nurse and Saroya Tinker know what it’s like to feel different, like an outsider.
The Canadian hockey trailblazers recently sat down with CBC Sports for a one-on-one conversation about what it means to be a Black woman in the sport, and how they are mentoring young girls following in their footsteps.
While their success and presence in the hockey space serves as inspiration for the next generation, Nurse and Tinker are also working directly with Black girls to help them realize the same dreams through various initiatives.
“Seeing the young Black girls in the stands, like I can’t even believe it; it blows my mind,” Nurse told Tinker. “Every time I see a little girl who looks like me or looked like me when I was a kid, it stops me dead in my tracks and gives me goosebumps.
“It just makes me feel seen almost, and it’s just as gratifying for me I think as it is for them.”
Nurse, 29, of Hamilton, Ont., helped Canada win Olympic gold in 2022 and currently plays as a forward for Toronto’s Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) team.
Tinker, 25, transitioned from the ice to league office as the PWHL’s Manager of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives & Community Engagement. The former defender from Oshawa, Ont., retired from playing last November after helping the Toronto Six win the Isobel Cup in the Premier Hockey Federation’s final season.
Making a difference
Being a role model has always been important for Tinker, who launched the Canadian chapter of the Black Girl Hockey Club (BGHC) in November 2022. The non-profit’s mission is to “inspire and sustain passion for the game within the Black community.” Tinker began volunteering on the club’s scholarship committee and eventually raised $32,000 to start Black Girl Hockey Club Canada, of which she is executive director.
Black Girl Hockey Club Canada offers a scholarship funded through Jumpstart, a financial aid program, community programs and mentorship opportunities across the country.
Tinker also started a mentorship program for BIPOC female players in 2020 called Saroya Strong.
“I see more Black girls being like, ‘Oh, I’m interested in hockey,'” Tinker said. “And I think the biggest thing that I’ve noticed in Black Girl Hockey Club specifically is that a lot of Black women aren’t even asked if they want to try hockey. It’s not even an option.
“But I see the smiling faces, and I see them being welcomed and having a community now, so that’s the positive part for me.”
WATCH l Sarah Nurse, Saroya Tinker discuss experiences as Black women in hockey:
Pulling from a stack of question cards, Nurse reflected on the first moment she felt different than her hockey peers because of her racial background.
“The first time I realized that I was a little bit different than the other people that I played hockey with, whether it was boys or girls, was in a girls’ locker room,” Nurse said. “We were talking about hair, and they started talking about my hair and how my hair just didn’t do the things that their hair would do.
“I remember one time I came into the locker room with my hair straight and everybody was obsessed with it. They couldn’t even get enough of it; they said your hair looks so much better like that. I just remember thinking, that’s not me, it’s totally not me.”
Tinker, who was inspired by Nurse growing up, experienced much of the same.
“I remember going to tournaments and they’re like begging me to brush out my hair, so I have this massive afro and it’s like a sight to see, but definitely an awkward moment,” she said.
Providing invaluable insight into the Black experience in women’s hockey, Nurse and Tinker opened up about feelings of imposter syndrome and having to be perfect all the time as women of colour, a weight they carry with them despite all their success.
“That essence of perfectionism. I feel that sometimes if I make mistake, that’s the only thing that is ever going to get talked about or is going to be remembered,” Nurse said. “So for me, I feel like we walk that fine line where I want to be perfect so that I can set the stage for the next little Black girl who wants to play hockey.”
Nurse is one of four Black players currently in the PWHL along with Minnesota defender Sophie Jaques, Ottawa forward Mikyla Grant-Mentis and Minnesota defender Nikki Nightengale. It’s a pivotal time for representation with more eyes on women’s hockey than ever before.
“I always say we’re kind of the first trailblazer generation,” Tinker said. “We had Angela James, but there’s five people like you [Nurse], Blake Bolden, Mikyla Grant-Mentis, Sophie Jaques and myself, and those are the visible pieces right now.”
“There are so many other [Black] women who are coming up and in this space with us, and I think it’s just really special to see the amount of numbers and how we’re showing up and really showing out,” Nurse said.
‘Nursey Night’ in Toronto
Nurse and Tinker also talked about a new initiative they are working on together, with an aim to expose even more Black girls to hockey and the opportunities it can provide.
Organized in conjunction with the BGHC, the newly launched “Nursey Night” will see Nurse host young Black girls at PWHL Toronto games each month, allowing the Olympic champion to connect with a new generation of hockey hopefuls.
“I couldn’t even imagine seeing professional women’s hockey when I was young,” Nurse said. “I get to be that person for those girls, to be able to bring them out to a game, be able to meet them after, talk, chat and then at the end of the season have a nice Zoom session with all the girls and just chat about anything.
CBC Sports will provide coverage of the inaugural “Nursey Night,” with video features available on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and the CBC Sports YouTube page.
WATCH l Nurse talks about race and diversity in her hockey journey:
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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