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EVANSTON, Ill. (CBS) — It has been more than 60 years since Willie O’Ree broke the color barrier in the National Hockey League – but since then, the sport has remained largely white.

As part of our Black History Month coverage, CBS 2’s Jackie Kostek introduced us Wednesday night to an Evanston hockey player who is changing the game right now.

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Making history can come with some nerves, as Ari Sushinski has learned.

“I’ve noticed that I’ve been very anxious before games because – what if I’m too small to play these kids?” Sushinski sad.

But for Sushinski, those doubts fade when her blades hit the ice.

“I realize that I can do this and it’s not really something I need to worry about,” she said.

After all, Ari has been playing with the boys since she was about 7 years old.

“I kind of just realized that I loved the physicality,” Sushinski said.

This season, the now 15-year-old became the first girl to make an Evanston boys’ varsity team since the mid-1990s – and the first Black girl to ever do so. And Ari did it as a freshman.

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“It’s rare for boys to make the varsity team as freshmen,” said Delayon Morris director of Evanston Hockey. “But I think with her position, how physical she is, how dedicated she is to the game, it was an easy decision.”

Before becoming the director of the Evanston Hockey program, Morris played in it himself – and has coached Ari since she was a squirt. He says Evanston has been intentional in its efforts to get more kids of color in the sport since the 1960s.

“Evanston is a very diverse city, so we try to match how our city is,” Morris said.

That has meant offering free hockey days to introduce kids to the sport and scholarships to remove the financial barrier for families. While Evanston’s purposeful programming has made for a largely inclusive experience for players, it hasn’t protected them from the realities of the sport.

“I’ve not played many teams that have Black people; dark-skinned Black people and I think that’s something that really needs to change,” Sushinski said.

NHL executive Kim Davis, a Black woman herself, agrees. She is striving for that change at every level of the sport – the league investing millions to create pipelines for players like Sushinski to make it to the league.

“If she wants to play professional women’s hockey, there’s a pathway for that. And there’s no reason not to believe that she couldn’t one day play in the NHL, given the fact that we have women at every level and growing in the NHL from scouts to general managers,” Davis said. “The examples are there. She can be whatever she wants to be.”

Already, Ari Sushinski is a game-changer, and a game-winner.

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“Having people like me in the sport really opens the eyes to so many other people,” she said. “It really makes people love the sport for not only the way people play but who’s in it.”

Source: CBS Chicago

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