MINNEAPOLIS — The landscape was very different when Meredith Lang began playing the sport of hockey in eighth grade, who then moved on to skate on her girls' high school team in Richfield.
"Seeing girls of color playing the sport was not something I remember seeing," Lang recalled recently.
Today, skaters of color are seen much more frequently in arenas and on team rosters across the state, thanks in part to the efforts of people like Lang.
On Monday, she was named by the NHL as one of three finalists for the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award. It is given each year to someone who has made a positive impact on the place they live through the sport of hockey.
Lang, a working mother of two girls, was attending a Minnesota Wild girls hockey weekend about five years ago when she ran into Community Relations and Hockey Partnerships. The two found they had a shared goal of involving more girls of color in Minnesota's game, and a subsequent meeting with homegrown hockey star Tina Kampa set an idea into motion. Lang is now co-founder of two organizations, Hockey Niñas and Minnesota Unbounded.
Minnesota Unbounded brings dozens of skaters of color together from more than 20 youth associations across the metro and pairs them with coaches of color who, like Kampa, have played at the professional or collegiate level. Lang believes it is essential for young players to skate alongside others who look like them and have shared life experiences.
Through the Hockey Niñas, Lang has made information about the sport and resources available to help kids of color try and play hockey accessible not only to families in Minnesota, but from Mexico to California to New York.
"It has been incredibly inspiring and I just can't believe where we sit at this moment in time," Lang shared during a recent interview.
The other two candidates are Noel Acton of Baltimore, MD, who wounded the Tender Bridge Foundation, and Ryan Francis of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, who helped launch and lead the Indigenous Girls Hockey Program.
The winner will be determined by fan vote and weighted votes from Willie O’Ree, the NHL and MassMutual, which sponsors the award. Fans are encouraged to vote from Monday, April 4 through Sunday, April 17 at a special page on the NHL website. The winner will receive a $25,000 USD prize and the other two finalists will each receive a $5,000 USD prize, each of which will be donated to a charity of their respective choice.
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