As flames rise from the Olympic cauldron, the United States women’s hockey team will gather with the world’s best winter athletes in February at the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The US team, a projected gold-medal contender, will be composed of women who in many cases have played together for years. But a one-time member of that elite group, Blake Bolden, a trailblazing African-American who starred at Boston College, became a three-time All-Star for Boston’s professional women’s hockey teams, and by many accounts warrants a shot at a spot on the US Olympic roster, appears unlikely to fulfill her dream of skating for gold.
Bolden, a gifted defender who would be the first black skater on a US women’s Olympic hockey team, has not been given an opportunity to compete for the 2018 team, despite her widely acclaimed talent.
Her supporters say Team USA not only has wronged Bolden but has squandered an opportunity to broaden its appeal to girls of color, who are chronically underrepresented in the game.
“Blake is clearly good enough to be on the Olympic team,’’ said Kelli Stack, a former BC star and two-time silver medalist who appears certain to skate with Team USA at Pyeongchang. “She’s an unbelievable athlete, super strong, one of the best skaters I’ve ever seen, and a great person and teammate. Someone like her should be a mainstay on the national team, but she has never really gotten a fair shot.”
On March 23, Team USA made a rare appeal to Bolden. With the national women’s team threatening to boycott the world championships over a pay dispute that has since been resolved — the tournament is underway in Plymouth, Mich. — US hockey executives were scrambling to recruit possible replacement players.
Would Bolden be available, Team USA inquired. The letter came from the same executives who had not granted requests from Bolden and her supporters to allow her to compete for a spot this year on the Olympic team. In solidarity with her friends and former teammates in the national program — and feeling disrespected — Bolden did not reply.
Yet she still yearns for a chance to earn a place in Pyeongchang.
“Even before I thought I was a good player as a kid, I dreamed of playing in the Olympics,’’ Bolden said in an interview. “I wanted to play at the highest level, and in my mind the Olympics were the pinnacle of women’s sports. That desire still burns in me.’’
No one believes she is the best female player in the country. And she would have little chance of supplanting the four veteran defensemen — Kacey Bellamy, Megan Bozek, Monique Lamoureux-Morando, and Lee Stecklein — who anchored US teams that won world championships in 2013, ’15, and ’16, and lost the gold-medal game in overtime to Canada at the 2014 Sochi Games.
All four veterans appear bound for Pyeongchang. So, too, it seems, is current BC great Megan Keller. Which leaves intense competition for the final one or two openings on the US roster.
What’s more, Team USA officials who make the final roster selections might determine they need players whose strengths differ from Bolden’s.
The problem for Bolden is she has not even been included in the competitive mix, despite winning gold medals with Team USA’s Under-18 teams in world championship tournaments in Canada in 2008 and Germany in 2009. She played on those teams with several current Olympians who, like Stack, have expressed surprise that Bolden has not been invited to compete for the 2018 Olympic team.
Team USA’s general manager, Reagan Carey, declined to comment, referring questions to spokesman Rob Koch. He issued a statement, saying, “We’re fortunate to have a very deep pool of players in the United States, including among our defensemen. As part of the National Women’s Hockey League, Blake has been heavily scouted along with other potential US players and therefore will continue to receive the appropriate consideration.’’
Koch said Team USA will decide after the world championships which players to invite to a selection camp for the Olympics. That could be the last chance for the 26-year-old Bolden to achieve her dream.
Amid her struggle, Bolden has resisted expressing frustration, focusing instead on trying to improve her game and pursue her goal. She said she has been heartened by the support of Olympians and NWHL leaders who know her best.
“It’s hard to say why they haven’t given her an opportunity,’’ said BC coach Katie King Crowley, who won Olympic medals with Team USA in 1998 (gold), 2002 (silver), and 2006 (bronze). “Blake is awesome in every way. I would always want her on my team if I’m the coach.’’
All the credentials
An Ohio native, Bolden began playing hockey at 7, while her stepfather worked for the minor league Cleveland Lumberjacks. She competed in elite boys’ leagues until she was recruited by the Northwood School, a winter sports prep school in Lake Placid, N.Y., where she was the only African-American student for four years.
At BC, Bolden established herself as one of the nation’s best collegiate defensemen and was nominated for the Patty Kazmaier Award, which honors the country’s top female college player.
She then broke barriers as the first African-American to play in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, with the Boston Blades in 2013, and as the first black player in the NWHL, with the Boston Pride.
In her third professional All-Star appearance, in Pittsburgh in February, Bolden played with 12 past or projected Olympians and won the skills competition for the hardest shot, at 87 miles per hour.
Her Pride coach, Bobby Jay, a former NHL defenseman who helped coach the US women’s silver-medal team in Sochi, asked Team USA officials last summer to consider adding Bolden to the 2018 roster.
“I love Blake,’’ Jay said. “I think she’s playing her best hockey and is right there knocking on the door’’ of the Olympic team.
Jay said Team USA’s chief scout, Boston-based Matt Kelly, closely evaluated Bolden during the NWHL season, which ended in March. Yet she was not given a chance to compete for a spot on the world championships roster — a discouraging sign for an Olympic hopeful.
“Blake is one of the most prolific players I have ever coached,’’ said Digit Murphy, her Blades coach. “She is one of the best I have ever seen. All I can say is, different coaches see different things.’’
So close, yet so far
A turning point for Bolden’s Olympic ambitions came in 2012, while she was in the midst of helping BC reach three straight NCAA Frozen Fours. She was training for the world championships in Michigan with the senior national team — directed by Carey and coached by Katey Stone, the former Olympian and longtime Harvard coach — when she was cut just days before the tournament.
The reason she was given? She was not well enough conditioned — an analysis that surprised her supporters since she had recently completed a brilliant collegiate season in which she was nominated for the Kazmaier Award.
She has yet to recover. With Stone still at the helm for the 2013 world championships and the 2014 Olympics, Bolden was invited back to the national team only as a practice player. She never again dressed for a game.
Some of her supporters blamed Stone for selecting two Harvard defensemen for the 2014 Olympic team rather than Bolden, their BC rival. Similar complaints surfaced in 2010, when University of Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson chose seven Wisconsin players for the team he coached in the Vancouver Games.
Team USA has since barred college coaches from coaching women’s Olympic teams, partly to avoid perceived biases in roster-building.
Crowley supports the change, saying, “I don’t want to say there was bias in Blake’s case, but I think coaches naturally choose the players they know best.’’
Stone declined to comment. But Jay, who coached Team USA’s 2014 defensive unit, defended her roster choices.
“We had 10 of the best defensemen in the world fighting for seven spots, and I feel like the girls who made the roster earned those spots,’’ he said. “I also feel like Blake is playing a lot better now than she was then.’’
Off the ice, Bolden could make a unique contribution as an ambassador for US women’s hockey to minorities across the country. Inspired by role models such as Serena Williams and Misty Copeland, she developed her outreach skills by working for Boston’s InnerCity Weightlifting for several years, assisting minority students in their lives outside the gym.
She graduated from BC with majors in human development and psychology.
“I absolutely embrace the role as an advocate for minority girls playing hockey and for all girls in whatever they are trying to achieve or overcome,’’ Bolden said.
One of Bolden’s supporters, former Olympic coach Ben Smith, guided the US women’s medal-winning teams in 1998, 2002, and 2006. He has been more involved in Team USA’s men’s program in recent years, but he remembers Bolden as a young prospect of seemingly boundless potential.
Smith expressed pride in helping to add three African-American players, including Boston University’s Jordan Greenway, to the US national junior men’s team that won a world championship in January. He said he recognizes the challenges that players such as Bolden face trying to make their way in organizations that have little or no experience with black athletes.
Smith said he hoped Bolden has not suffered from any misperceptions based on her race.
“I certainly would like to think that USA Hockey is open to the best players and that your play is dictated by what you show on the ice,’’ he said.
For her part, Bolden is trying to remain hopeful. She recently completed her first year as an assistant girls’ hockey coach at Milton Academy, and she has launched her own business as a performance coach. She is leading a weekly girls’ elite skills clinic this spring in Hingham.
Meanwhile, she continues to train, trying to find a path to Pyeongchang.
“I’ll be right here waiting,’’ Bolden said, “hoping that one day I can look back and say I was able to do what I dreamed of doing as a child.’’Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.