This interview is part of our Women’s Month Special, where we will bring information about players who made history in the world of hockey, the pioneers of the sport, about women’s leagues and many other curiosities and incredible stories of women who are part of the community. Throughout the month of March, we will be bringing content on Instagram, Twitter and here, on our website!
Today we’re going to talk a little bit about Saroya Tinker, defender of the NWHL’s Metropolitan Riveters, the Women’s Hockey League.
Saroya Tinker uses her voice to change the world inside and outside of the ice.
The 23-year-old Canadian defender currently plays for NWHL’s Metropolitan Riveters, where she was selected as fourth overall in the League’s 2020 draft. A multi-athlete, Saroya played badminton, basketball, curling, lacrosse, football, athletics and even ultimate frisbee during high school, as well as playing hockey since she was six. It was as a high school student that she had her first opportunity in Canada’s under-18 national team.
At the university level, she played for the Yale Bulldogs. There, she says she found her voice only in her senior year, when she also felt most comfortable on the ice. Saroya scored 32 points in 122 games played in her university career.
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Outside the rinks Saroya Tinker also stands out, using her voice to combat racism and social injustices. As a partner of the Black Girl Hockey Club, she does everything in her power to help future athletes and who have gone through the same situations as her.
Our team managed to get in contact with Saroya for our Women’s Month Special, and the interview can be read in its entirety below.
Ana Gabriela Ilha Kalil: So, we are recording. Well, we have some questions, and first one is, can you tell us about your experience with hockey?
Saroya Tinker: Like how I got into it?
Ana Gabriela: Yeah, yeah.
Saroya: So actually I’m from from Canada. I grew up just outside Toronto, in Oshawa, Ontario, and my dad grew up in Scarborough. And Scarborough is kind of a hockey town in the GTA out here in Ontario. And my dad just really loved the game growing up, played roller hockey, ice hockey and whatever he could get his hands on, really.
But my dad experienced a lot of racism in the sport and never really played at a high level or anything like that. But through that, he wanted to put his kids in it and kind of prove people wrong. So with that, I began playing hockey around the age of six, was skating probably by the age of two and a half or three. So with that, I I’ve always just continued to play and and wanted to prove people wrong for my dad.
Ana Gabriela: That’s nice! And how was the NHL bubble experience and what were the biggest challenges you had besides the covid situation?
Saroya: Yeah, I think the bubble went well for for what we had and what was offered to us. I think that we did an awesome job in terms of sponsorships and partnerships. But we were in the hotel 24/7. If we weren’t at the hotel, we were on the ice at the rink. So it was either you were alone in your hotel room or with the team at the arena, but obviously still social distancing. And I mean, we had a lot of alone time.
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So, I mean, I spent a lot of time in my hotel room just reading. I did a lot of yoga, things like that, just to stay prepared and stay ready. But, yeah, I was a lot of alone time and a lot of hockey focus. So I think overall it was a great experience and unfortunately, it did have to end early, but at the same time, I think that the league did a great job in what they provided us and and what they had for us and what they had in store for us during the whole tournament.
Érica Barros: The next question is, what was the moment in your life that made you realize you truly wanted to be a hockey player?
Saroya: Geez, I think growing up in high school, I kind of really needed to focus on one sport. I played basketball and soccer competitively as well and had to choose between the three of them. But my 11th grade year in high school, I received a Team Canada invite to try for the under-18 national team. And from there, I kind of just took it upon myself to just solely focus on hockey after that.
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I wanted to make the national team and still played basketball and soccer and everything else I played in high school, but at the same time really made an effort to put my best foot forward in hockey and make that team. And fortunately enough, I made the team and won a silver medal with that. But yeah, I think receiving that Team Canada invite was, was that that moment where I realized that hockey was supposed to be my calling and that’s what I was going towards.
Érica: And how was the experience of playing for Yale in college hockey and what are the biggest difference, you know, that playing in NCAA and in the NWHL?
Saroya: Yeah, yeah. So Yale, I would say my experience at Yale wasn’t, wasn’t the greatest in terms of a team atmosphere. I felt like hockey was more of a job when I was at Yale, kind of came to the rink with my headphones on, did my job on the ice and left, didn’t really have many connections with my teammates. But overall, I think that my senior year we were able to have that new coaching staff come in and and really give us that new outlook on what Yale Hockey is all about.
And we were able to move from a consistently eighth or ninth place team, just barely making playoffs or just making playoffs every year or two to a fifth place team in my senior year. And that was only the first year of Mark Bolding coaching. But I think he’s doing a great job in building the program. So I think at Yale, by my senior year, I’d found my voice and found how I was comfortable at the rink and what I was able to ask certain things.
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But at the same time, I think the off campus experience at Yale was something that I can’t even really put into words. I think that you have to be there to to experience it really, and get to know everybody on campus and get to know the the faces and the professors and everybody. Yale is an incredibly liberal campus. And I think that they do an amazing job of including people. So it was whether it was meeting up with a new group on campus and learning about what they’re doing or meeting up with my other friends on other teams, I think the experience of being at Yale was truly amazing. I got to learn so much, obviously, in a short period of time. And I think that the off campus experience was really what kept me going throughout my hockey career there.
And then moving forward to playing professionally, I would say the biggest difference is just the the speed and the strength of the girls on the ice. I think obviously it’s a more narrow talent pool and we’re able to to pull the best players and in the world really to play in our league. So I think that the size and speed is really the main thing, that’s the biggest difference, but also just the level of professionalism that the players hold themselves to and how they want to include their teammates and hold themselves to a high standard, but also hold their teammates to a high standard. And while doing that, making sure everybody feels included and welcomed.
Nathália Juliana: Could you tell us more about the Get Uncomfortable Campaign with the Black Girl Hockey Club?
Saroya: Yeah, so Black Girl Hockey Club, I currently volunteer with them. I’m on their scholarship committee specifically. But that Get Uncomfortable Campaign is really something for other other teams, other leagues to take part in and recognize where they can improve on having uncomfortable conversations with them, with their teams and with their staff members.
I want to take a minute to acknowledge & appreciate those who have taken the time out of their day to donate to @BlackGirlHockey! This Organization means the world to me & we are truly making a difference in these young Black Queens lives!👸🏽
*Click the link below to donate* pic.twitter.com/u3QtTINXbp
— Saroya Tinker (@saroyatinker71) January 27, 2021
I think in order to improve diversity and inclusion, you have to have uncomfortable conversations and and learn from the people around you and learn ways that they want to feel included and ways that they don’t feel included and to diminish those practices as we move forward. But the Get Uncomfortable Campaign is essentially something that the teams can sign and make a pledge to promise to have those uncomfortable conversations and make a difference in the diversity and inclusion areas.
Nathália: I’m not sure, but I think the only NHL team that pledged to the complaining was Seattle?
Saroya: Yes, I think I think Seattle was the first one to do it. And then I’m pretty sure we’ve got a lot more hopping on board now. I know some OHL teams have done, I know other leagues and such have done it as well. So, I mean, the more people we can get, the better we can make it. So we’re looking forward to having more people sign that.
Nathália: Yes. And there’s still a long way to fight racism in hockey and society. How do you think that the NHL and the NWHL and many other leagues should fight in a more active manner?
Saroya: Yeah, I think my go-to thing is to start by having those uncomfortable conversations, I think in order to know what your league or your team needs, you have to talk to your BIPOC players and and see where they feel like they’re excluded. And in that sense, I think it’s on other teammates and coaching staff and players to make sure that their teammates feel included.
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So something that I’ve talked about a lot is anti-racism. So it’s not enough to just turn a blind eye and not acknowledge that something is happening right in front of you, whereas I think we need our allies and our white teammates and staff members to call out other people and educate them, because it’s not our job as BIPOC players to educate those around us. But we need the effort from our white counterparts to to kind of combat that and be that force with us.
Luíza Vidal: Yeah, definitely, I think that when you have allies like in the league, in two leagues, that you have most white players, I think it’s the most important for us. Like you said, you guys don’t have to teach anybody. You guys don’t have to educate anybody. And I completely agree with you. That’s awesome. We saw, I think it was last week, that you posted that open letter talking about your story and how things were really hard and are really hard for you. What motivated you to write that and to open up about your story?
Saroya: Yeah, I think from what I’ve noticed is that when people share their stories, you get a lot of people that listen and want to know how you feel and how you felt throughout your career. Especially as athletes, I think that people respect us as athletes, but also at the same time, you have to remember that that we’re people as well more than just Friday, Saturday night entertainment. Right.
— The Players' Tribune (@PlayersTribune) February 27, 2021
So I think Players’ Tribune does an amazing job of showcasing those stories and making sure that we’re heard. And for me, I think that it was important for me to share my story just so that the other younger black girls coming up in these positions and that have these hopes and dreams the same as I did, will be able to see themselves in a position of power and see themselves playing professionally and through college and and all that stuff. So I think for me to share my story is really to be that role model for the girls behind me and let them know that even though they may go through these these racially charged instances or or these these past that that are hard for them to get through, that they can do it and they can make it.
Luiza: Yeah, for sure. And I think I speak for all of us when I say that I got chills reading your story, I almost cried. It was really inspirational, even being a white woman. I think that it’s so important that you share and you have such a beautiful past. And just one question out of our list, how did it feel for you to be in a professional hockey league like the moment that you got the news that you were going to play for the Riveters? How was that?
Saroya: Yeah, I think that I mean, I actually didn’t even plan on playing pro pass my my college career. But my my college coach made sure that that I was at least going to have some some professional experience in there, as he knows that I can play at that level. But I mean, being drafted fourth overall, I definitely wasn’t expecting that. Just as a big, strong defenseman, I would expect them to take more skilled players over me, I guess. But at the same time, it was it was awesome being in the bubble. We were treated as professional players, given given the circumstances of covid and all, I think that the league did an amazing job. And I think it was it was nice to finally feel like we were welcomed within hockey just as women and it was nice to be able to have that professional setting just because it’s not something that that we’ve seen a lot in professional women’s hockey. So I think that that was super important and I definitely loved having that experience.
Luiza: That’s really nice. To wrap it up, we want you to leave a message for all the young girls, for all the women who are trying to get in the business, who want to be a player, who want to be a journalist and want to be inside the hockey business, the hockey community.
Saroya: Yeah, I think my go to message is always to be unapologetically yourself. I think that when you’re able to do that, you’re able to totally love who you are and be able to share that authentic voice. I always I think that it’s important that the girls keep their heads high and also keep their standards higher. I think that we need to hold ourselves to high standards as women and move forward with that and demand the attention and the respect that we deserve within our sport and within our businesses and whatever it may be. So be unapologetically you.
Luiza: That’s awesome. I loved everything.
Saroya: Yeah. Thank you, guys.
Ana Gabriela: Thank you. Is it OK for you if we subtitle and then post on all of our social media?
Saroya: Yeah, that’s fine.
Ana Gabriela: OK then. Thank you. Thank you so much for your time.
Luiza: Thanks so much, thank you!
Nathália: Yes, it’s an honor!
Ana Gabriela: It was so special for us! Congrats on your career and everything. Oh my gosh.
Saroya: For sure. Thank you, guys. Let me know if you need anything else.
Ana Gabriela: OK, thank you so much.
Saroya: Ok, have a good day!
Saroya Tinker’s social medias can be found here.
A translated version of this interview can be found here.