Canada is big on hockey. From the age of 3, I was a lot like many other kids, lacing up skates I’d quickly outgrow and learning how to balance on ice. A stick soon gets put in your hands, and before you know it, you’re on a team with a bunch of other kids who hardly know how to avoid each other, never mind make a play with the puck.
You learn to skate backwards. You learn to crossover. You learn how to pass, shoot, find space. You learn a lot about the sport growing up in its birth place, but there was a distinct lack of focus through my years on learning what it means to be accepted in a community. Hockey as a culture demands much of its players, both physically and mentally. At all levels, while a coach asked you loudly to skate harder, they also demanded of you silently to sit down, shut up, and fall in line.
It got worse as I got older. The longer you play, the deeper culture gets ingrained. Inside the rink without a doubt, but outside of it too. You see teammates at school, in town, and eventually, for a 15 year old Cas (who wasn’t even going by Cas yet), you realize you’re trying to make your way through self-discovery while playing in a sport that wants nothing to do with you. The hazing culture as a teenager wasn’t anything I wanted to be a part of, certainly not when I was struggling with my own emotions off the ice in relation to being queer and trying to hide everything from a sporting world that would absolutely not have my back if they found out.
How was I sure of that?
I avoided the hazing. The coach himself, a middle aged man and father of one of the older players, made sure that in a practice I was the center point of abuse and violent drills as punishment.
Shut up and fall in line. That’s all it was. I loved the sport, but the sport didn’t really love me. So I left. I endured that year and ended my career at 16, not willing to be abused and be hidden for 2 more years. It really ate at me as an athlete, not having that sporting outlet. However, it let me breathe a little as the years went by. Sacrifice one thing to benefit elsewhere, that’s how I saw it. If I needed to drop the sport I loved to mentally be alright, that was okay. I attended some drop-in games over the years, I didn’t really talk. I moved to another part of Canada, the locker rooms had the same dread of heteronormative culture inside of them. So I showed up to pick-up, I grimaced at the jokes every day about women players and gay players, and I never spoke. Wasn’t worth it. I got to be on the ice again, and that was that.
Across the continent, my best friend and then MGHA player Soup was talking to me every day. I shared with him experiences, my worries, and in return he shared details about the league he was in. It sounded crazy, everything from the outward acceptance to the sheer size of the league. Maybe I could find something like that nearby.
Better than that, I found myself through a period of strife and discovery moving to city of Madison, and best friend became my partner. My partner, in the 2022 Classic, became a teammate. I got to see what it was like for the first time to enter dressing rooms where the air wasn’t choking the breath out of me for being queer, but in fact welcomed who I was.
I still didn’t talk a lot. I said hellos, and I listened. I nodded, I got a feel for how everyone was, and we played hockey. It was my first organized experience in a decade, then a 25 year old playing for the first time on a real team since I was a troubled teenager.
It was one of the best experiences of my life.
The summer went by, and I was signed up ASAP for the 22-23 season. Nervous as hell, no real clue what to expect, but I had a goal to become more comfortable, play well, and let myself relax and enjoy a new environment that was unlike what I had growing up. Game by game, little by little, I talked a bit more, made a few more jokes, opted to try and help out where I could. My captains (shout out to Leif and Maddy!!) were incredibly welcoming, and were an amazing example of people who could make anyone feel like they belonged on and off the ice.
They, and everyone in this league, helped change the scope of what I came to expect from a locker room and of hockey itself. They gave me the confidence to start using pride tape, to put stickers on my helmet to display pride at any ice surface, and start to advocate for that same acceptance elsewhere. There’s honestly a sore gap in my heart as I type this with the season over, waiting for the next to start. I can’t wait for the 2023 Classic, and social meetups, and more events.
On top of that, I feel incredibly honored that I was asked to be a captain for a tournament team this year. I don’t think very highly of myself a lot of the time, and I think that’s an unfortunately shared experience of a lot of people within the queer spectrum. It’s laid on us by a lot of hate and discomfort over our lives, and communities like the MGHA are important to undo that.
Being given a chance to be a leader and help other people have the same experiences I did?
Couldn’t say yes fast enough.
This league helped change my life, and as long as I’m nearby, I’ll be playing in it and doing what I can to help it grow.
Canada is big on hockey, but the MGHA is big on its players. The hockey world needs this sort of focus if it’s going to change, and I don’t think there’s a better example out there of how to do it than this league.
Thank you everyone who I played with, and against. Thank you everyone who helps run the league, and every volunteer. Thank you Soup. You all do much more than you know.