Schenectady

Opening Faceoff: Union hockey programs make diversity statement with hiring of Black assistant coaches

New Union College women's hockey assistant coach Olivia Soares, left, and new Union College men's hockey assistant coach Lennie Childs. (Photos provided)

New Union College women's hockey assistant coach Olivia Soares, left, and new Union College men's hockey assistant coach Lennie Childs. (Photos provided)

You have to like what the Union men’s and women’s hockey programs have done with their coaching staffs.

Within a week, Dutchwomen head coach Josh Sciba and Dutchmen head coach Josh Hauge each scored a goal for diversity. Last Thursday, Sciba hired Olivia Soares as assistant coach. Then on Thursday, Hauge named Lennie Childs as his second assistant coach.

Both are Black. Soares, who was an assistant coach for the Division III Colby women’s hockey team, became the second Black women’s coach in NCAA Division I hockey history, joining Dartmouth assistant coach Nina Rodgers.

Childs, who joins Union after serving as an assistant coach for the U.S. Hockey League’s Des Moines Buccaneers, is the third active Black head coach in NCAA men’s Division I hockey. The others are Leon Hayward (St. Thomas) and Paul Jerrard (Omaha). Childs is the second Black assistant coach with Union men’s hockey. Guy Logan was an assistant coach for head coach Bruce Delventhal in the early 1990s, when the program moved from Division III to Division I.

“I think it’s an important part of what we strive for here at Union College, to promote diversity, equity, inclusion and a sense of belonging for our entire campus community,” Union athletic director Jim McLaughlin said in a telephone interview Thursday. “We’re just really thrilled that we have two great coaches for both our men’s and women’s ice hockey program that are going to bring a great deal of enthusiasm, energy and passion and are going to have a great impact on our student-athletes and the campus community and very happy to add some additional diversity to our department.”

Soares, who played college hockey at Ohio State from 2016-20, feels like a pioneer.

“It’s an honor to be in a position, and I think it’s a cool experience for me,” Soares said. “I think when you see it in writing, like reading the article, [it’s] sort of surreal. I know Nina Rodgers really well. It’s just a huge, huge opportunity for us to be able to use our platform and still grow the game. There’s a lot of work to be done. But to be able to say that I was a part of that and hopefully continue to have an impact down the road, it’s been awesome. I’m looking forward to ways to impact it even more as my career goes on.”

Childs, who played collegiately at Division III Concordia University Wisconsin from 2012-16, is happy to be in company with Hayward and Jerrard.

“I know Leon and Paul quite well,” Childs said during a telephone interview Friday. “They’re both outstanding individuals, and they’re unbelievable hockey coaches. I think it’s good to be in that echelon with them. Just to be able to show that we’re good at this craft and we can do it at a high level, it’s really fun and really exciting to be in Division I college hockey and with names like that.”

Soares understands that she can be a role model to inspire Black girls to play hockey.

“Growing up and just always being on a team or being on the ice, I was the only player of color the majority of my career and pretty much for all of my career,” Soares said. “I think now just being able to see younger players of color enjoying the game, feeling like they have someone who they can look up to and they see players of color getting drafted in the NHL, or female coaches in our positions or players and throughout NCAA hockey.

“I think it’s so important for them to see other players, and for myself, I always wanted that role model. There were some male players in the NHL that I would look up to. But I think just as far as being able to see something that you aspire to be is huge. I think for a lot of us in these positions, we have a great opportunity and I think a little bit of responsibility to make sure that we do our part.”

Soares grew up in the Boston area and loved playing hockey. For the most part, she had few problems with people giving her a hard time because of the color of her skin.

“There definitely are times where you learn that some people are paying attention to those things,” Soares said. “Fortunately for me, I was surrounded by great teammates and great coaches throughout my playing career. That’s not to say there weren’t instances where other opposing teams or other opposing players had different views. There are definitely moments where it was challenging times where I felt like I was being told I didn’t belong in a game that I loved. So I think that’s just something that was extremely difficult.

“And then you hear stories of players quitting, or not playing anymore, or feeling like they shouldn’t play because of those situations. Lucky for me, I had great support from my mom and my dad and in the things that they told me and just encouraged me to continue to play the sport I love. But there were definitely times and situations where it wasn’t the best and it wasn’t the best moments of my career. But I think it helped shape me and helped me grow a lot.”

Childs is a native of Silver Spring, Maryland. He said his experience playing youth hockey there was awesome.

“You have your one-off times that it may happen throughout the year, just from people that don’t know you. They just want to cause hate,” Childs said. “But honestly, I’ve had unbelievable people from the time that I started when I was 5 years old. The inclusion was amazing. The families and the parents that we were with were great. I’ve been around great people.

“I always say that for whatever one racial slur that may have been [said], there were a thousand other handshakes and fist pounds [and] good greetings along the way. So honestly, the good outweighs the bad in every scenario.”

Sciba believes Soares can be an inspiration to Black hockey players.

“I think she has a special opportunity with our girls,” Sciba said. “She lived it. She’s someone that the girls can look up to every day, someone that can connect with them in a very unique way that [assistant coach] Chris [Ardito] and I just can’t. Our girls are really excited. I think there was nothing but great feedback from the girls that had a chance to meet with her during the interview process. And I’m just excited for her to be around our kids full time and just share experiences, to really coach them and develop them and be able to give them what kind of experience that she had as a player and just help motivate them every day.”

When Hauge started his search to fill the assistant coach position after TJ Manastersky left to become head coach of the Brock University men’s hockey team, he was looking for the best candidate regardless of skin color.

“I’m super excited for him to get this chance,” Hauge said. “At the end of the day, he could be purple for all I care. I thought he was the best candidate, and gave us the best chance to get players. I thought [he] won the job based on his characteristics and his qualities of a person.”

Sciba said diversity is needed in hockey.

“I think our game has a long way to go, quite honestly, with diversity,” Sciba said. “I think with inclusion, our game needs to get a lot better, and I think being able to implement just quality young female coaches into our game that share our passion for helping other women along the way is imperative to our game as well.”

Hauge and Sciba deserve plenty of credit for their hires. Hopefully, other NCAA programs will be more inclusive down the road.

SEEING SIMILARITIES

Soares was part of an Ohio State team that went from a struggling program to one that won the WCHA tournament title in 2020, the season she was the captain. Unfortunately, the trip to the NCAA tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. This past spring, the Buckeyes won their first NCAA title.

Being a part of a program that went from struggling to a championship is something that Soares wants to do at Union. The Dutchwomen have never been to the ECAC Hockey postseason since becoming a Division I program in 2003-04.

“It’s a huge opportunity and a very exciting time to be a part of the Union hockey family,” Soares said. “I think we have a lot of things that are very exciting on the table a new rink coming up, adding scholarships. The program’s at a time where we can hit those history marks [and] we can really change around the program. Josh and Chris, in just speaking with them, their vision for the program is awesome. I think in a couple years, the conversation surrounding Union hockey will be a lot different than the one we’re having now.”

FAMILIAR FACES

Childs will be reunited with two first-year Union defensemen he coached in junior hockey.

John Prokop played for the Buccaneers the last two seasons. He had a goal and 14 assists in 58 games last season.

Childs also coached Cal Mell when he was an assistant coach for the North American Hockey League’s Janseville Jets. Mell had three goals and 36 assists in 60 games last season.

“They’re going to be great,” Childs said. “They’re just outstanding humans. Cal Mell comes from Alpharetta, Georgia. He’s a salt-of-the-earth kid. As a hockey player, he’s got a high IQ. He’s a leader. He’s done some really great things with the puck, and to be honest, he’s worked his way through the ladders of junior hockey, showing that his growth as a player and individual is top notch.

“John Prokop has been a steady player in the United States Hockey League for about four years, and I’ve seen him develop [in] all stages of his career. Another great individual, the players love him, he’s great to be around and he brings a really good skill set. He’s a great skating defenseman with a nose to be able to make good plays on the breakout. Those are two guys that I would say definitely have a chance to be a big part of the lineup in the future.”

LATE AFTERNOON DELIGHT

The times for the Union men’s hockey games are being established, and there will be something unique when 2023 rolls around.

Four Saturday home games — Jan. 7 against Colgate, Jan. 21 against Clarkson, Feb. 11 against Brown and Feb. 25 against Princeton — will start at 4 p.m. instead of the traditional 7 p.m.

“It’s just allowing more families to get there,” Hauge said. “The 7 o’clock start for a young family, it’s tough to get there. It allows people to have their Saturday evenings as well.”

Union played a 4 p.m. game against Princeton in Game 2 of the ECACH tournament first round, and the Dutchmen seemed to enjoy it, eliminating the Tigers from the postseason with a 5-1 win.

Hauge isn’t concerned about losing a couple hours of rest after playing a 7 p.m. Friday game.

“These guys all played junior hockey,” Hauge said. “They have difficult schedules and travels and quick turnaround games. From their experience, it will be a lot better. Being done on a Saturday a little earlier allows them to get a good dinner and have a good Sunday free.”

Union will have three other 4 p.m. games — Oct. 2 at Army West Point and Dec. 30-31 against New Hampshire at Messa Rink.

Categories: College Sports, Sports, Sports, Union College

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