Someone To Look Up To: Saroya Tinker

Yale’s first Black ice hockey player gives young players of color a role model, and the inspiration goes both ways. 

By Alex Holmes

When the fourth overall pick of the 2020 NWHL Draft was selected last May, the league and its fans knew they were welcoming a talented, right-handed defender. A powerful, intelligent, and artistic woman would eventually make the short trip from Yale University to New York City. She arrived at the Metropolitan Riveters ready to play and ready to invest in the girls of color for whom she would soon become a role model on and off the ice. That draft pick was Saroya Tinker. 

Photo Courtesy of Yale Athletics

The 22-year-old from Oshawa, Ontario played eight sports growing up: ice hockey, badminton, basketball, curling, lacrosse, soccer, track and field, and ultimate Frisbee. For all the time she spent playing sports, her ability to earn Yale-worthy grades is just as impressive. Tinker’s decision to attend the Ivy League school made her the first Black player in the history of Yale ice hockey. She played with the Bulldogs from 2016 to 2020 and also landed a spot on Team Canada during this time. She represented her home country at the 2017 Ball Hockey World Championship, where she won a bronze medal. Tinker’s play at Yale was characterized by her knack for setting her teammates up for success, amassing 26 assists over her four-year career. 

Setting others up for success is something Tinker knows how to do well, especially off the ice. While in college, Tinker stayed busy outside of hockey, immersing herself in experiences that put others first. In the summer of 2017, she interned with Locker Room Talk, LLC, a company that seeks to help prospective student-athletes transition to college. 

Her senior year at Yale featured an eleven-month stint with the John Howard Society of Durham. During her time with the Oshawa-based nonprofit, Tinker conducted research on marginalized people groups in the community with the goal of increasing employment and assisting clients with finding housing. Tinker graduated from Yale with degrees in both medicine and public health and sociology. Her time helping marginalized communities in her hometown was a just a precursor of things to come in the following months. Her future with the NWHL was well in sight before she graduated, and she’d soon find a way to make her time in the league count.

In May 2020, the Metropolitan Riveters drafted Tinker in the first round. She made the drive from New Haven, Connecticut to the Big Apple ready to make an immediate impact on the ice. In the second game of her NWHL career, Tinker assisted on a goal in her team’s 4–3 win over the Connecticut Whale.

Photo Courtesy of Twitter

As she started to make her mark on the Riveters organization, her impact off the ice had already begun. Tinker, whose father is Jamaican and mother is Canadian-Ukrainian, is a minority figure in professional hockey. Throughout the summer of 2020, Tinker used her voice to speak up about the struggles she has faced as a Black female ice hockey player. She wrote a poignant essay on her experience as a Black athlete and her struggle with mental health. Later, she spoke in an interview about hockey’s reckoning with racism. 

Whitney Dove, Nina Rodgers and Mikyla Grant-Mentis are other current Black players in the NWHL, and they remain well in the minority. Exact demographics from women’s youth and professional ice hockey are limited, but if the numbers from men’s ice hockey are any indicator, white players and fan bases make up the overwhelming majority of the ice hockey world. White players comprise over 90% of players in the NHL and white fans make up 77.1% of the hockey fan base, according to a FiveThirtyEight report released last fall. That same report contains all-too-common stories of fan bases hurling racist comments at players like Joel Ward, K’Andre Miller and Akim Aliu. 

The NWHL announced its players would wear patches bearing the phrase “End Racism” for the 2021 season. While the use of patches outwardly expresses the league’s initiative against racism, that expression needs to be backed up by action. Actions do speak louder than words—and Saroya Tinker will be heard. 

Earlier this week, Tinker began raising support for the Black Girl Hockey Club (BGHC). The organization was founded by Renee Hess in February 2018, with a mission to “inspire and sustain passion for the game of hockey within the Black community, specifically with our mothers, sisters, daughters and friends,” as explained on its website. Tinker started a fundraising campaign for the BGHC Scholarship Program, which subsidizes the cost of playing hockey for Black women ages 9 to 18 years old. Several scholarships are available through the program, ranging from $500 to $5000 and covering the costs of things like hockey camps, equipment, tournament fees, and seasonal team memberships. To donate or find out more about Tinker’s scholarship fund, you can access it here

Shortly after being drafted, Tinker made it clear that what she was most looking forward to as a player of color in the NWHL was the chance to influence the kind of players Black Girl Hockey Club seeks to help. “I’m definitely excited to reach that group of girls who dream of being professional hockey players just as I did and interacting with them as well,” she said in a She Plays podcast

Growing up, Saroya Tinker did not have many players who looked like her that she could look up to. Things will be a bit different for the next generation of minority girls playing ice hockey—Saroya Tinker will make sure of that. 

Tinker and the Riveters will be back in action throughout the next week and a half as they chase down the Isobel Cup. A schedule for the Riveters is available here. The season will conclude with the Isobel Cup playoffs, set for February 4–5, and will be broadcast on the NBC Sports Network.

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