Returning to Play with Purpose

Returning to Play with Purpose

Go Out and Be Benders!

By Kristen Richards for CBC Sports
September 20, 2020

My phone rang the other day. I had no idea who the man was on the other end. After some small talk about the pandemic, he introduced himself as the father of one of the girls I coach at Monday night development with the Etobicoke Dolphins. While his daughter will be going into her second year of U-9 hockey, he is about to be head coach for the first time.

He wanted to talk about how crucial it was to create a memorable experience for the players, and to help them develop a love for the game. We spoke about the importance of competition and its different interpretations. Just when I thought he could not be a more loveable dad, he began talking about plans for his coaching staff. I asked him if he had anyone in mind, and he answered simply, “women”.

Coaching u-9 players  encompasses more than on-ice skills. (Submitted by Kristen Richards, courtesy Heather Pollock) Coaching u-9 players encompasses more than on-ice skills. (Submitted by Kristen Richards, courtesy Heather Pollock)

Here’s a man that recognizes the importance of female role models. He understands that he can share all the hockey knowledge in the world, but his daughter still needs someone to look up to that looks like her. Be still my feminist heart.

If you want strong role models for your children, they need to see women who excel in every regard. Part of that means more media attention. Shout out to CBC for committing to equal gender coverage, but we need more from everyone. Professional women athletes are using their platforms to denounce social injustice because they have never been allowed the luxury to just be athletes.


After the pandemic broke in March, the NWSL was the first U.S. team-sport to return to play. Amidst the joy and excitement of returning to the pitch, the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns kicked off The Challenge Cup tournament by taking knees during the national anthem, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

Next up, the WNBA. The players dedicated their entire season to Breonna Taylor. Their league will not let you forget her name, nor the names of many other Black women victims of police violence. The “Say Her Name” campaign resurrects the cases of Sandra Bland, Vanessa Guillen, Korryn Gaines, Natasha McKenna… I recommend researching the WNBA’s newfound “Social Justice Council” when you get the chance. This league is not waiting around for change. They are demanding it.

This brings me to women’s hockey. The whitest sport of the three mentioned, which creates a different kind of work for us. With so few women of colour in hockey, we can’t afford to burn out the few that we have. We need to share the emotional and educational load and promote a culture of anti-racism. Saroya Tinker shared her story about her mental health battles as a collegiate athlete and Black woman in hockey. She opened my eyes to what I always thought was a safe space. Erica L. Ayala’s new YouTube series, “Social Justice in Women’s Hockey” pushes the thinking further. Allie Thunstrom (NWHL), in conversation with Blake Bolden (PWHPA), reflected that “Not being racist isn’t enough, silence is being complicit.” These are conversations we’ve never had before.

Markham Thunder's Kristen Richards during 2018 Clarkson Cup CWHL hockey final. (Chris Donovan/The Canadian Press) Markham Thunder's Kristen Richards during 2018 Clarkson Cup CWHL hockey final. (Chris Donovan/The Canadian Press)

We should recognize the work of the PWHPA. The organization continues to seek ways to educate and empower its athletes. On July 16, 2020, the PWHPA, with Dr. Courtney Szto, hosted an internal Q&A about tackling racism in women’s hockey. This was both a safe and a brave space for players to ask questions and get a better grasp of what has been happening in their world. The discussion started with a clarification of interpersonal vs. systemic racism, and then went in to anti-racism, native mascotry, and what it means to be an ally. Dr. Szto concluded with a call to action. “Go out and be Benders!” If you’re unfamiliar with hockey, “Bender” is an old insult in the game. But she brought it full circle with a quote from the WNBA’s Renee Montgomery:


“Dr Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ For this to remain true however, we need Benders, people who actively bend our society towards justice.”

I’ve never been so proud to be called a Bender in my life. To follow Dr. Szto’s call to action, the PWHPA released a statement recognizing hockey as a predominantly white sport that requires a culture change. Along with that, the PWHPA included educational resources, clubs and foundations to donate to, voices to amplify, and a call to vote in the upcoming election. It is clear that the focus in women’s sport goes well beyond return-to-play and has instead created the demand for action.

Increasingly, female forward  sport organizations are driving social justice causes. (Submitted by Kristen Richards, courtesy Heather Pollock) Increasingly, female forward sport organizations are driving social justice causes. (Submitted by Kristen Richards, courtesy Heather Pollock)

As a parent, I am guessing you want your kids to stand up for what they believe in. You want them to put the needs of others before their own. You want to raise someone who recognizes when they have a platform and uses it to make the world a better place.

If any of that appeals to you, watch women’s sports. Just be warned: while the play will be thrilling, you should also prepare to have your assumptions challenged, and your understanding of many injustices broadened.

All images submitted by Kristen Richards except as noted.

The Kristen Richards edition

Q: The best book you've read? 
A: Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom

Q: Must-listen podcast? 
A: The Happiness Lab with Dr Laurie Santos

Q: Best advice you ever received?
A: Don't tell them what you think they want to hear, just be yourself and speak your passion.

Q: If your life is a movie, what's the title?
A: Sometimes Funny.

Q: Word or phrase you overuse?
A: "I can't, I have hockey."

Q: Skill you wish you had?
A: Speak another language.   

Q: Something no one would guess about you?
A: My favourite thing to eat for breakfast is milk and a row of Chips Ahoy cookies.

Q: What scares you?
A: Spiders...and Megan Bozek's slap shot.

Q: Who gets an invite to your ultimate influential dinner party?
A: Jayna Hefford, Serena Williams, Brene Brown, Courtney Szto, Tara Slone, Hazel McCallion.

Q: What makes you cry, every time?
A: The vet our puppy Rupert goes to has a candle out front that says "If this candle is lit, someone is saying goodbye to their best friend. Please keep your voice down."

Q: Next goal?
A: Continue the mission with the PWHPA and hope that we see a true professional league in the near future.


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