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To Switzerland and back, Blake Bolden finds her new hockey home in Buffalo

Last year, she was the only American on her team. The goaltender was Canadian, but other than that, every woman on HC Lugano spoke Italian, part of the multilingual experience of living and working in Switzerland.

It was a challenge Blake Bolden went searching for, knowing that the best way to improve, whether it be in hockey or in life, is to get out of your comfort zone.

With more confidence, the Cleveland native is returning to the United States, lured back into the National Women's Hockey League by the Buffalo Beauts.

"My decision was made pretty quickly," Bolden said in HarborCenter on Wednesday, noting that Beauts General Manager Nik Fattey had initially reached out to her. "I had been going back and forth on where I wanted to play next season. I had no idea, and it just felt right about Buffalo. I think it's going to be a great decision, a great move for me."

Bolden is used to making moves, even if those choices kept her in the same city for the better part of eight years.

She played at Boston College, earning the captaincy her senior year. She then was drafted by the only pro league in town at the time, the Canadian Women's Hockey League. The selection by the Boston Blades made her the first African-American player in the league.

"I was a little bit lost when I had graduated from Boston College," Bolden said. "I didn't know if I was going to continue to play. I went home for a couple of months and just had an epiphany and said, 'I'm not done.' So I went to the CWHL. Luckily that was an option for me."

She was an All-Star with the Blades and won the Clarkson Cup with them in 2015. When the NWHL formed later that same year, she signed with the Boston Pride. In the NWHL she was getting a paycheck for the first time, won the inaugural Isobel Cup, and, again, made history as the first African-American player in the league.

There are a lot of "firsts" on Bolden's resume when it comes to the intersection of her race, gender and sport. And it's a topic she doesn't mind discussing. Because representation is important.

"I've been hearing about that since Day One and I'm very comfortable talking about it," Bolden said. "I'm proud of it. When I was growing up I didn't see individuals who looked like me in this position. So I think it's very important for me to be that role model for the younger girls. ... That's as simple as it can get. I did not see people who looked like me playing professional ice hockey. And if I can be someone they can look up to, that's a win for me."

In a sport that doesn't have much in the way of racial diversity, Bolden grew up dealing with bits and pieces of racism. Most of that aspect was felt by her mother. Bolden said she just wanted to play and didn't let anything get in her way.

"Growing up there was a little bit," Bolden said when asked if she had to confront racism in her hockey career. " I think my mother saw that a little more than me. I was a little kid and just wanted to play hockey and gain the respect of my teammates and the people around me. I think as I evolved as a hockey player, those things just kind of fell off my shoulders. I had a one-track mind. I had a goal. I wanted to play for Boston College. I wanted to just pursue my career and nothing else was going to get in the way of what I wanted to do."

Bolden continues to pursue her career, excited for the opportunity in Buffalo. She has international experience. She's won championships in both leagues. But now, she feels she's a little bit stronger and a little bit better as a player.

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"I am a lot more confident in my position as a player and in what I can bring to the team," Bolden said. "I think it just takes time to find your fit and discover what your role is on each team and deciding, 'OK, this is my game and this how I want to play.' I think that takes a few years to discover that about yourself."

Bolden had 27 points in 20 games for HC Lugano last season, notching 16 goals and 11 assists. She added four points (one goal, four assists) in six playoff games.

Her production certainly caught the eye of Fattey. Bolden's game and her personality seemed to fit right in with the Beauts signings this summer as he constructs the roster, from scratch, as all NWHL contracts are for one year.

"Great player. Big shot. Really good reports on being a great teammate and a hard worker and the Beauts, the team we're building, that's what we are -- good teammates, hard workers, skilled," Fattey said. "It just seemed like a good fit. Talking with her, I got to know her a little more and it all came together nicely."

Those other signings, like, say, oh Shannon Szabados, certainly turned Bolden's head. But once she got to talking specifics and saw the support the Beauts had, Bolden knew this was the spot for her.

"Wow. I mean you guys know Buffalo is amazing," Bolden said. "The city is blowing up. The girls are great. The team, the atmosphere, the fans. I  just want to be a part of it all. The amenities. I get to work on my skills on a daily basis. There are just so many things that made the decision very easy for me.

"I had the red carpet rolled out for me yesterday and I knew this was going to be my home."

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