In all sports and all drafts the first overall pick is noteworthy.
But the top selection of Kelsey Koelzer to the New York Riveters in the 2016 NWHL Draft holds a special significance unlike any other. She made history and still holds the distinction of being the only Black player in any professional hockey league draft to go number one.
“It was definitely really cool,” Koelzer says as she recalls the events of June 18, 2016. “A whole mixture of emotions. A lot of excitement, shock, disbelief, but all in a good way. I was very happy but at the time I didn’t realize the magnitude of being a Black player picked first overall.”
Koelzer was in the car sitting in traffic with her Mom heading to Jersey Shore for a little vacation when her phone started blowing up. She logged onto social media and saw her Twitter notifications escalating after her Uncle Fred tagged her in a post. It was fitting the news would come from him given his early influence on her introduction to the sport in Warminster, PA.
“He started the family’s love of hockey,” she says. “He coached his two sons, my cousins, who were like older brothers to me and were always at the rink. I saw how much fun they were having so he urged my Mom to get me in to learn to play programs. It took some coaxing but it all worked out.”
Her selection came following her junior year as a member of the Princeton University Tigers. She had been in communication with Riveters general manager and head coach Chad Wiseman confirming her interest in the league and program after graduation. Wiseman knew exactly what he was getting when Koelzer’s name was called.
“I think Kelsey was the best player available in the draft,” says Wiseman, now an associate coach with the OHL’s Guelph Storm after being part of the Riveters first three seasons. “She was a big, strong, fast, mobile, dynamic defender who could skate the puck out of pressure. She had probably the hardest shot in women’s hockey.”
With professional hockey plans pending, Koelzer returned to Princeton to captain the Tigers with added confidence during her senior year completing a collegiate career that included three First Team All-Ivy League honors, Ivy League Player of the Year recognition, First Team All-American honors, and was a two-time finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology she joined the Rivs full-time in 2017-18 and was part of the club’s Isobel Cup championship.
“Winning the Isobel Cup was most memorable,” she said. “Having that success and fulfilling our dream was special. Our hard work paid off to make it all worthwhile.”
In her first season, Koelzer produced 14 points in 15 games and scored a record four goals in the NWHL All-Star game to earn co-MVP honors with Hayley Scamurra, another standout from the 2016 draft class who would go on to win Rookie of the Year. But what happened on the ice that weekend in Minnesota isn’t what Koelzer cherishes most.
“Seeing just how much support there was for women’s hockey with all of the young girls and their families who came out to watch the skills competition and game was just an awesome moment,” she says. “Realizing the impact we had can change lives and that we were really getting through to people and making a difference.”
Perhaps the biggest impact Koelzer had was on a young Rayla Wilkes. That weekend her mother, Amanda Wilkes, Tweeted about how her daughter wanted to be a hockey player just like Koelzer. Rayla would later serve as an honorary captain for a Riveters game and just this season the now 8-year-old was awarded a scholarship from Black Girl Hockey Club.
“These girls, they see women, which is great,” Amanda Wilkes told Bridget Condon of ABC11 in February. “They see women and they’re doing what they’re doing, and then a girl of color sees a girl that looks like her doing exactly what she wants to do, and it just makes you feel like she can do it, too. I think representation is really, really huge.”
Rayla plays for the Junior Canes in her home of Raleigh, N.C., and wears No. 55 in honor of Koelzer, who is still her favorite player.
“I think that’s really cool because I haven’t seen many dark players in hockey,” Rayla Wilkes said. “I think it’s really cool for girls like Kelsey to play.”
Being a role model is something Koelzer has always embraced and even though her playing days are over, her dedication to making hockey an inclusive space continues. She made history as the first Black head coach hired in the history of NCAA hockey when she joined Arcadia University in September 2019 and was recently appointed by the NWHL as Advisor to the Commissioner on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
“Prior to that, I had a taste of my position in hockey and the impact I could have,” Koelzer says. “My goal since I entered college has been to open doors and that’s been reflected in every role. Allowing folks that look like me to realize opportunities without barriers. I want to crack the door open so that others can break through.”
On the ice, Wiseman got to watch Koelzer develop as a versatile player excelling in situations as both a forward and defender. He isn’t the least bit surprised how many of the characteristics he valued in a top NWHL prospect continue to impact the game off the ice.
“She was a strong personality with leadership qualities and was well respected and liked by her peers,” her former coach says. “I’m not shocked. I’m really happy she’s become a trailblazer using her leadership skills and platform to grow the game and have a positive influence.”
Five years after Koelzer was selected first overall the NWHL celebrated its first Black MVP and Newcomer of the Year in Mikyla Grant-Mentis of the Toronto Six, while Riveters rookie Saroya Tinker became the first Black player to be named the prestigious Denna Laing Award recipient for her own contributions to inclusivity. Koelzer looks forward to seeing what the next wave of NWHL talent can bring beginning with the draft on June 29.
“Most players getting drafted now are used to the grind of a season,” she says. “But they’re more of an adult now with more power and impact on younger players. Especially players of color. We’ve seen the swing in the sport and the numbers are incredible. Have pride in even the small things you do. Don’t underestimate your power because it’s able to make a difference and it matters.”