Kianna Saillant said she was in tears when she left the ice on the last day of Black Girl Hockey Club Canada’s summer camp in Toronto on July 23.

“I was so sad to leave,” Saillant said. “The last hour I was just crying. The camp meant the world to me, and it really changed my perspective on how important it is to have diversity in hockey.”

The 18-year-old forward from Winnipeg was one of 68 players of color from across Canada and the United States who attended the inaugural camp held by BGHC Canada, a free event held July 22-23 at the Canlan-York Sports Arena.

Sayora Tinker, BGHC Canada’s co-founder and executive director who played for Toronto of the Premier Hockey Federation last season, and Sophie Jaques, a former Ohio State University defenseman, led the camp.

Tinker said she had longed to host a camp to provide an outlet and bonding opportunity for girls of color who may feel isolated or targeted because they may be the only non-white players on their teams or in entire leagues. 

“I thought it was so important to have this space as Black women, which is what Black Girl Hockey Club is for,” she said, “but I think it was also important to show how many Black girls we have.”

Tinker said she and Jaques were initially worried about turnout for the camp because they announced the camp on BGHC social media four weeks before players were to hit the ice.

Their fears quickly disappeared when families of players quickly signed their children up for the camp, which was supposed to be for girls between 10 and 18 years old.

But parents of younger players like 8-year-old Eloise De Freitas of Columbus, Ohio, wanted their children to participate, something Tinker and Jaques couldn’t refuse.

“It was special to see people who look like me at the camp,” said Eloise, a forward for the Columbus Chill Youth Hockey Association’s Girls Travel Blue Jackets Under-10 team.

The camp had four on-ice sessions coached by Tinker, who was a 2023 finalist for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award in Canada, and Jaques, won the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award in March as the top player in NCAA Division I women’s hockey. She was the first Black player to receive the award.

They were assisted by an all-woman, all-Black coaching staff that included Kryshanda Green, a former captain of Toronto’s Ryerson University women’s hockey team and the granddaughter of Bill Riley, who became the NHL’s third Black player when he debuted with the Washington Capitals in 1974; Mariah Hinds, a former Ryerson defenseman who played last season for ESC Planegg in the DFEL, the German women’s hockey league; Kandice Sheriff, who was a forward for Buffalo of the National Women’s Hockey League in 2019-20 and Rochester Institute of Technology from 2015-19; and Nayla Brooks, who played in the Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association.

“I don’t ever really get coached by women at all,” Saillant said. “So being coached by Black women was, like, the most extraordinary experience I’ve ever had … It was so special to me, and it felt so personal when they were coaching me.”

It felt personal to Jaques too.

“It was so important for me just to be able to get out there and spend time with the girls, a lot of the girls I’ve had the fortune opportunity to be a role model for,” said Jaques, board member for the BGHC chapter in the United States. “It was a really surreal experience. I just had fun seeing all the kids, how excited they were, how much fun they had. It was such a great opportunity to grow the game and I’m just hoping to do a lot more like that in the future.”

In addition to the ice time, camp participants were put through their paces during dryland training. They also had a session at the rink conducted by a hair care professional on ways to manage their hair after it’s been under a helmet for hours.

“When I’m mentoring my girls that’s probably one of the first questions that I get in my opening sessions, ‘How do I take care of my hair?'” said Tinker, who won the PHF’s Isobel Cup championship with Toronto last season. “As Black women we take great pride in our hair, and there is so much history that goes behind it. We knew the importance of it for our girls, so we figured that (the camp) was the perfect opportunity to address that.”

Tinker co-founded BGHC Canada in November 2022. The nonprofit group is the sister organization of the Black Girl Hockey Club in the United States that was founded by Renee Hess in 2018 to inspire and sustain passion for hockey within the Black community, specifically among Black women, and provide access to the sport through education and scholarship programs.

Since 2019, the U.S. organization has awarded more than $140,000 in cash scholarships to 75 girls. In 2022-23, BGHC U.S. gave away $20,000 in equipment to 20 girls.

BGHC Canada will announce its first round of scholarships on Aug. 25. The four top scholarships are named after Angela James, a dominant Canadian forward in the 1990s who became known as the Wayne Gretzky of women’s hockey; Bernice Carnegie, co-founder of the Carnegie Initiative, a hockey diversity and inclusion organization named after her father, Herb Carnegie, who was posthumously enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in November in the Builder category and is regarded by many as the best Black player who never reached the NHL; Blake Bolden, a scout and diversity and inclusion specialist for the Los Angeles Kings; and Sarah Nurse, a forward who helped power Canada to a gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and is a cousin of Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse.

Tinker and Jaques said they’re already thinking about conducting another camp next summer, and are beginning to plan for that while many of this year’s camp attendees are still basking in the afterglow of bonding sisterhood.

Saillant said attending the camp has given her a boost of confidence as she prepares to play this fall for Arcadia University, an NCAA Division III school near Philadelphia. The team is coached by Kelsey Koelzer, the only Black woman currently leading an NCAA hockey team.

“She’s amazing,” Saillant said. “She did things that I dream of doing, playing Division I for an Ivy League team (Princeton University). She’s gone so far, and she’s broken down so many barriers for Black girls my age now. I just really want to be mentored by her as well.”

Chase Rutty, an 18-year-old defenseman from Rumson, New Jersey, said the BGHC Canada camp inspired her as she heads off to play for Sacred Heart University, an NCAA Division I school in Fairfield, Connecticut.

“I really honestly had the time of my life, I can safely say I never had more fun playing hockey,” said Rutty, who played in Minnesota for Shattuck-St. Mary’s Under 19 AAA girls’ team last season. “You could see for the younger girls how important it was for them — just really being themselves, smiles all around. It was everything I could have imagined and more.”

Photos: Courtesy Akim Burke/Visuals By Dream