Blake Bolden didn’t expect her job to involve bubble hockey.
No one who works in the NHL did. For Bolden, as just the second woman scout in the NHL and the first Black woman, her first season with the Los Angeles Kings was a whirlwind in particular.
“It’s like being on a new team,” she said. “And it is a new team, it’s like it’s been my whole life. This time you’re not playing, but you are aiming for a common goal.”
It’s not often scouts in any sport are asked to do their job without being on location, but in a pandemic world full of sports bubbles and less and less access, that’s exactly what Bolden and other scouts have had to do.
That itself has created a new appreciation for the role, and given her some new views on how to scout hockey.
“You can’t see plays after the whistle, you follow the camera,” she said. “But you can rewind, go back to see what you just saw. Having the TV it’s nice you can hone in like that, but you do miss seeing the entire ice and the play developing.”
A star defender for the Boston Pride of the NWHL before making the leap to the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, the 28-year-old Bolden was about as accomplished as a hockey player could be. She hadn’t started thinking about the next phase of her career until a chance encounter with the Kings in January.
“I’d never thought about scouting,” said Bolden. “I was at the Kings facility because I was a special guest for Black Girl Hockey Club, and the Kings wanted to talk to me about women’s hockey, and I think he wanted someone for the role of an AHL scout, and he asked if I was interested.”
From there, Bolden went through an intensive interview process before she joined Hockey Hall of Famer Cammi Granato of the Seattle Kraken as the second woman to hold a scouting position with an NHL club.
She started out scouting local AHL games, mostly the San Diego Gulls, a new experience as it was.
“We have prospects that we’re taking a look at throughout the whole season, just tracking them,” said Bolden. “How they perform game-to-game, their capabilities, things that ebb and flow in an entire season.”
When the pandemic took shape and all hockey was put on pause, Bolden wasn’t sure what would become of her role. No AHL, ECHL, or any hockey in California — even as the NHL returned, and the Kings or any other California-based teams weren’t a part of the postseason — meant Bolden’s job was going to have to be re-imagined.
In that re-imagining, she found herself scouting NHL games.
“I’ve never scouted NHL teams yet,” she said. “It’s quite different. We’re looking at players from Tampa Bay and Dallas and Vegas and seeing how talented everyone is. For me it’s been a lot of learning, just like every scouting experience. How they see a play in comparison to what I’m seeing, and it’s all pretty exciting.
“I’ve never scouted these (NHL) players before, but you look for guys who stand out. For example, I like Miro Heiskanen of Dallas. I’d never seen him before in my life and was like, holy cow this guy is amazing. Seeing how guys compete against him, they’re physical like Ryan Reaves or how Vancouver gets more physical against a team like Vegas, there’s instances you read the scenarios and pick up on certain players.”
As a player herself, Bolden is a tough defender with one of the hardest shots in the women’s game and a nose for the net, and at times she can’t help but reflect on how she would handle different situations on the ice while she’s in scouting mode.
It’s a little different than the game she’s played her whole life, but hockey is hockey, and she can easily imagine the thought process behind the plays on her TV screen.
“It’s really fun to play that game with yourself,” said Bolden. “These guys are so skilled and can do things I couldn’t dream of doing, taking a wrist shot and it going 200 feet down the ice. I like to look at skating, are they agile, can they use their edges really well, are they knocked off the puck, how do they change directions? I’m a pretty good skater so I think about that.”
Bolden also cited watching the playmaking abilities from well before the play is made, and the processing of the players on the ice.
Not being there to see the entire play develop makes it a bit more difficult, but Bolden still found some standouts.
“Everyone who played the game does that,” she said. “Thinking, ‘I wouldn’t have done that.’ There was one play (Elias) Pettersson made where he used his knee to slingshot around the goalie and make a pass to (Tyler) Toffoli and I was like, that was the coolest thing ever, I never would have thought to use a knee, I’ve never done that before.”
The next time pro hockey is played, Bolden hopes she can be there in person. Whether that’s scouting a Gulls game or attending the Kings contests or wherever they might send her next, Bolden’s ready to take the skills she’s learned from bubble hockey.
Even if it means influencing the Kings’ scouting department from her couch.
“It’s a different energy watching from home,” she said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re a spectator relaxing at home and realize, ‘I have to scout these players.’ It’s an adjustment, different from going to a game, feeling the energy. This particular NHL playoffs are different from anything, there’s no factors for home and away players.
“You kind of don’t even notice, everyone is still playing like it’s playoff hockey.”