Color of Hockey: Soares loving transition from player to assistant coach

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William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for nine years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the sport. Today, Colby College assistant Olivia Soares, who is among a small but growing group of Black women entering hockey’s coaching ranks.

Olivia Soares has been busy helping set up the locker room for the women’s hockey team at Colby College, arranging meals for players and doing the other mundane tasks that first-year assistant coaches do.

And she’s loving it.

“Some things I have to do are not the shiniest things or the most fun things to do,” Soares said. “But coaching is something I’ve waited to do for so long that what I’m doing feels like what I’m meant to do, and this is where I’m supposed to be.”

The 23-year-old former captain of the Ohio State University women’s team is making the transition from playing NCAA Division I hockey in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to working at Colby, a Division III school in Waterville, Maine, and member of the New England Small College Athletic Conference. Soares, who was a forward, is among a small but growing group of Black female former collegiate players entering hockey’s coaching ranks.

Nina Rodgers, a forward who played at the University of Minnesota and Boston University, was hired as an assistant by Dartmouth College on July 14. Kelsey Koelzer, a former Princeton University and National Women’s Hockey League (now the Premier Hockey Federation) defenseman, made history Oct. 30 with her coaching debut at suburban Philadelphia’s Arcadia University, becoming the first Black woman to guide an NCAA hockey team.

Soares aspires to follow Koelzer’s path.

“Kelsey Koelzer is breaking down barriers and opening doors for all women of color within hockey,” Soares said. “To kind of being put in that category is so cool for me to be just growing the game and taking the next steps to have a platform to have these conversations and talk about why diversity and inclusion is so important.”

Soares began preparing for her coaching future while playing at Ohio State. She peppered coach Nadine Muzerall and her staff with questions about how they do their jobs.

“She (Muzerall) allowed me to see what they did for practice planning, what recruiting looked like, so I really appreciate her for letting me get a sneak peek on what it is,” Soares said. “I spoke with a lot of other coaches along way. Greg Fargo, (women’s) head coach at Colgate, I had the opportunity many times to pick his brain about coaching.”

Soares’ interest in coaching soon became talk in the women’s hockey coaching grapevine. Colby coach Holley Tyng was looking for an assistant in the offseason and heard about Soares through Princeton University coach Cara Morey and Quinnipiac University coach Cassandra Turner, who each had previously been through the hiring process.

“They both were, like, ‘You’ve got to this Oliva Soares, you’ve got to call her, she’s fabulous,'” Tyng said. “From the first time I chatted with her, I was impressed by her maturity, her communications skills. Clearly a very good leader just by her presence. She’s very relatable to my current players.”

The daughter of a firefighter and a post-anesthesia care nurse, Soares grew up in Boston and played basketball until she tagged along to a friend’s hockey practice.

“I saw his practice, saw his dad skating and coaching the practice,” she said. “He stopped and blew the snow on the ice and I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I had to try it.”

Soares played in the Bay State Breakers youth hockey program and twice captained the girls’ varsity hockey team at St. George’s School in Middletown, Rhode Island. She helped it win a Division II New England Prep School championship in 2015-16 and was named team MVP that season. She went from being a star player in prep school to a role player at Ohio State, taking shifts on energy and checking lines. She scored eight points (two goals, six assists) in 142 NCAA games from 2016-20.

“As classes continued to come in with more talent, roles change, you move around and I found myself not playing as much,” she said. “But in my head, I was asking, ‘What can I do to still have an impact on this team? What am I going to do around the locker room? What am I going to do on the bench? What am I going to do when my number is getting called to have an impact on the program?'”

Tyng said that attitude will carry Soares far in coaching, especially in Division III hockey, where coaches do almost everything.

“We run our social media, we market our program, we fundraise, we do locker room renovation,” she said. “The travel arrangements and the meal prep, sometimes that stuff is not as glamorous.

“But, gosh, Olivia’s not above any of that. She’s ready to get down, get dirty and get her hands in all of it.”

PHOTOS: Ohio State Athletics, Colby College Athletics, Olivia Soares

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