Saroya Tinker isn’t afraid to speak up about mental health: ‘She’s blazing a path’


Content warning: This story addresses suicidal thoughts and eating disorders and may be difficult to read and emotionally upsetting.

TORONTO — It’s the morning of Sept. 28 and Saroya Tinker is on the ice at Canlan Sports — York, the home of the Toronto Six. Training camp is underway and the players are participating in morning practice, preparing for another Premier Hockey Federation season.

Tinker, wearing a No. 71 red practice jersey, begins a shooting drill with a slap shot on net. Then she fires a wrist shot, beating the goalie. With a coach in the corner, Tinker skates in on an empty net. She receives the pass. Shoots the puck. Square on the mesh.

The drill continues for a few rounds. Tinker passes to her coach, then skates toward the slot, receives the pass, and fires the puck on net. It’s easy to see Tinker’s nimble skating ability, the physical presence she brings on the ice and the quick shot. It’s the physicality and freeness that draws Tinker, 24, to hockey, a sport she’s played since she was 6 years old.

September was a busy month for Tinker. She starred in Uninterrupted Canada’s new documentary “Black Ice,” chronicling the history of anti-Black racism in hockey, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). She participated in a TIFF-organized Q&A about the film and attended the premiere alongside Canadian Olympian Sarah Nurse and members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, including Nazem Kadri, Akim Aliu and Wayne Simmonds.

On Sept. 21, Tinker partnered with Sherwood Hockey, the same stick brand she used in her early days playing hockey. It’s the first time Sherwood sponsored a PHF athlete.

Tinker works extensively with Black Girl Hockey Club Canada as their co-founder and executive director, creating spaces through hockey for young people of color and those who support them. She also has 75 trainees, ranging from nine to 21 years old, through her mentorship program “Saroya Strong,” which aims to empower women of color to overcome personal struggles.

“It’s definitely been hectic and busy,” Tinker said. “Definitely overwhelming but I’m the type of person that loves a busy schedule. If I’m not busy, I feel like I’m not doing enough.”

Tinker’s risen through the hockey ranks to the pro level, her profile increasing in visibility. Along the way, she’s struggled with her mental health. Tinker said her mental health struggles stemmed from high school, continued throughout her collegiate career at Yale and still exist today. In a personal essay written in The Players Tribune on Feb. 25, 2021, Tinker described being a Black woman in hockey and how she grew hateful of the sport because of anti-Black racism, which included microaggressions and racial slurs. These experiences intersected with Tinker’s mental well-being, contributing to feelings of doubt, stress and depression.

At a time when athlete mental health is discussed more frequently, from tennis star Naomi Osaka to DeMar DeRozan of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, Tinker isn’t afraid to speak about her struggles. As she says, “I’ll always be 100 percent unapologetically Saroya.”

On Apr. 25, Tinker sent out the following tweet:

Tinker had just wrapped up her first season with the Toronto Six in March. She sent the tweet during the time of contract negotiations and teams deciding roster spots. With a new coaching staff coming to the Six, Tinker felt a sense of loneliness. She was close to last year’s head coach, Mark Joslin, who is also Black.

“I just remembered and went back to the feelings that I had always had going into every year,” Tinker said. “I knew I had a new coach … it’s just those similar feelings of ‘Wow, damn, I’m alone again this year.’”

Messages of love and support for Tinker came flooding in. A day later, she wrote a follow-up tweet, saying that it’s OK to not be OK.

“I speak up because I know so many others struggle with mental health and as many kind & loving messages as I received yesterday, others may not have that support,” Tinker said.

These messages of support are what Tinker passes on to her mentees through her “Saroya Strong” program. One example that stands out to Tinker is when she trained with a mentee in Calgary last summer. After one of the workouts, the mentee opened up to Tinker about her own mental health struggles.

“She was an open book with me,” Tinker said. “I also realized that when I speak up, my 75 mentees feel OK to speak up, or they may think it’s OK to speak up and they want to talk to me. It’s setting the example of just being open and honest with yourself.”

R. Renee Hess, founder and executive director of Black Girl Hockey Club, sees the impact of Tinker’s philanthropic work. Not only is she providing pathways for women of color into hockey but making them feel comfortable enough to open up about mental health struggles.

“Working with Saroya, she has brought out the aspect of athlete mental health to Black Girl Hockey Club,” Hess said. “She wants to make sure that we’re considering all the angles when we look at our young athletes because, as she’s said so many times, athletes don’t really get a chance to discuss their mental health and to address mental health issues and it’s taboo sometimes to even talk about it.

“She’s a change leader in the way she’s speaking up about not just societal issues, but individual personal things like mental health. She’s blazing a path through hockey.”

Tinker learned how to skate on a frozen pond behind her grandparents’ house in Oshawa, Ont. Once she stepped onto the ice, she loved to skate. She participated in gymnastics and dance growing up but eventually her dad, Harvel, switched her over to hockey to become a defenseman. He’s the reason why she’s playing hockey today.

Harvel played hockey in Scarborough, Ont. Tinker describes how her father experienced racism while playing the game. He didn’t play at a high level but he felt excluded because of his race, which ultimately pushed him out of the game.

Tinker embraced her dad’s advice on how to deal with racism. She could relate to his experiences dealing with microaggressions and racial slurs. “He always told me to let their comments go in one ear and out the other,” Tinker said. “He always reminded me to prove them wrong.”

Tinker played two years for the Durham West Junior Lightning, recording 10 goals and 22 assists in 71 games. While attending Monsignor Paul Dwyer Catholic High School in Oshawa, Tinker excelled in the classroom. She was a straight-A student, eager to learn something new. Tinker describes herself as a huge nerd, one who is an encyclopedia for random facts.

Given her academic success, Tinker wanted to attend an Ivy League school. Playing hockey made that dream possible.

“We just need to have the conversations,” Tinker said of the need to address mental health among players.

Tinker attended Yale University, where she played for four years on the women’s hockey team. In the early years, Tinker described the Yale experience as intimidating. A lot of the kids came from affluent backgrounds. Tinker arrived from Oshawa on a heavy financial aid package.

She was homesick and struggled to find her place on the team in the first couple of years. She internalized a lot of the offhand remarks about race that were made in the locker room. “I kind of kept to myself just because of the things I heard in the dressing room,” Tinker said. “I just ultimately didn’t really have a space anymore. I felt like I didn’t know who I was.”

Tinker said she struggled with depression throughout high school but it wasn’t diagnosed. Going to Yale made her realize that she wasn’t OK mentally.

“I knew I was good enough to play on the ice and did my job definitely for sure,” Tinker said. “But at the same time, I knew that there was so much more that I could give if I was mentally sound and OK with myself.”

During her junior year, Tinker reached a low point. There was a day when she contemplated suicide.

“I just didn’t want to be around anymore,” she said. “I was just lying in bed all day. I wouldn’t eat anything all day until it was 20 minutes before I had to run to practice. I’d pick up a smoothie, get on the ice, get off and go right home and be lying in my bed. I was just at an all-around low.”

Tinker said she has long struggled with her body image. “My eating disorder and depression kind of go hand in hand,” Tinker said. “I would say I don’t always love the way I look still and I still struggle with that to this day.”

“I think not eating and not fuelling my body for being a student athlete and not mentally being ready for my game because I hated myself that day was really the issue. But there were more issues than just one.”

Tinker knew she needed help. She tried counseling but never found someone she could connect with. After two counselors not working, Tinker didn’t want to try again. It was at that point she was connected to a Black therapist.

“I didn’t have to further explain myself in terms of being a woman or a Black woman in that context,” Tinker said. “She understood where I was coming from and then I realized just how imperative it was for Black women to connect with other Black women.”

Tinker didn’t just confide in her therapist. She also turned to fellow Yale teammate Tera Hofmann. Tinker and Hofmann’s hockey paths have been intertwined — they played together on the Durham West Jr. Lightning, at Yale and in the 2021-22 season with the Toronto Six.

Being a queer, Jewish hockey player, Hofmann felt she could relate to Tinker’s experiences being a minority in hockey.

“I think we both acted as pillars of support for each other, and that was really important for keeping us afloat at times,” Hofmann said. “We had done all this legwork to create space for ourselves to exist.

“We never shied away from those difficult conversations. Whether it was navigating aspects of being minorities on the team or mental health struggles, we were very open with each other. I think creating that openness and that trust — just in the circle of the two of us —was a way for us to both realize how lacking that is, how few spaces there are like that and how powerful the impact of them can be.”

For her first three years, Tinker anchored the defense on Yale teams that finished with below-.500 records, failing to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. This resulted in an overhaul of the coaching staff, paving the way for Mark Bolding to become the head coach of the Bulldogs.

Bolding arrived at Yale after a successful Division III coaching career, leading his alma mater Norwich University to two national championships in 2011 and 2018. He knew the culture of the Yale women’s hockey program needed to change.

It started with input from Tinker and the rest of the senior class.

“Tink was honest, brutally honest,” Bolding said. “She was a good one at telling us her thoughts and how you can’t fix a problem, you can’t move forward in an organization, until you get some things out there.”

Despite Tinker being frustrated with hockey, she realized this was an opportunity to establish a good rapport with Bolding. He was someone who wanted to hear from the players and connect with them and hold people accountable. Tinker appreciated that Bolding could welcome players into his office to have conversations, ensuring the team dynamic was sound.

He made Tinker aware of her potential on the ice and her purpose away from it. When Kiersten Goode, a freshman from La Habra, Calif., arrived at Yale to play hockey, it was the first time Tinker played with another Black player. The two developed a close bond, with Tinker acting as a kind of big sister to Goode.

“She was a great role model,” Goode said. “As time went on, it was really important for me to learn that she wasn’t perfect, and that she was just like the rest of us. That was when our relationship was the strongest. We completed each other in a way.”

For the first time since 2006-07, the Yale Bulldogs finished with an above .500 record during Tinker’s senior season (17-15). The deciding Game 3 against Harvard in the ECAC quarterfinal proved to be Tinker’s most memorable game. Down by one goal with less than a minute remaining in the third period, Yale won a faceoff in Harvard’s zone. Tinker, at the point, fired a blazing shot on net. Claire Bolton tipped the puck in the net to tie the game.

According to Bolding, Tinker jumped as high as she could. Grant Kimball, one of Yale’s assistant coaches, described the moment as an “out-of-body, pandemonium experience.” While Yale eventually lost the game in triple overtime, Tinker will remember fondly her final collegiate contest, after a tumultuous four years.

“It’s against Harvard,” Tinker said of her involvement with that tying goal. “Nothing feels better than that. It was definitely a big turning point for me.”

As the morning practice ends, several players exit the ice. Tinker remains, completing her last set of stickhandling and skating drills.

The Toronto Six open their 2022-23 season on Nov. 5 against the Minnesota Whitecaps. Tinker’s goal for the season is to play with confidence.

“I think in the past, due to playing with so much anger and hate inside me, it leads me to overanalyze and doubt my game,” Tinker said. “I am a completely different player when I play confident.”

In those low moments, Tinker leans on music and art for self care. R&B is Tinker’s genre of choice, with artists such as Erykah Badu, Ari Lennox and Jorja Smith on her playlists. Painting is Tinker’s outlet for her eating disorder. A late-night activity to have her own time, Tinker paints bodies on canvas. According to Tinker, the paintings build up over the course of a season.

“It’s about body empowerment,” Tinker said. “It’s about making women aware that all bodies are different and that all bodies are beautiful.”

As women’s hockey grows and gains more visibility, personal stories like Tinker’s become more relevant to the wider conversation around mental health. Reagan Carey, the PHF’s new commissioner, sees the influence Tinker has on players in women’s hockey by telling her story. While the PHF doesn’t have a mental health policy like the NHL and NHLPA through its player assistance program, Carey sees the importance of providing support for players to get help.

“We’ve got a number of players that can share their experiences to make the pathway for the next generation just a bit more informed,” Carey said. “And a bit more insight about what they might need to do to stay healthy and to have a balanced full life.”

Tinker believes that for women’s hockey to progress, the players need platforms where they can feel open to share their struggles.

“We just need to have the conversations,” Tinker said. “I’m not sure who’s struggling on my team. And quite often, I would say that not a lot of people know when I’m struggling. I’ll say last year, we had an amazing family atmosphere on the team. I think that those were the settings that we needed to be open and honest. All of that comes from your leadership. I think just being able to have open honest conversations and dialogue is going to be what changes the game ultimately.”

Regardless of Tinker’s on-ice accomplishments this season, it’s her off-ice contributions where she continues to make a big impact.

“It’s my purpose in playing now,” she said. “It’s what makes me want to come to the rink. Seeing the little girls that I get to interact with and the conversations that I have and how excited they get about their games and showing me the medals from their tournament on the weekend, or whatever it may be. That’s what keeps me going.”

(Photos: Nathan Fernandes / Toronto Six)


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