Growing up in south Texas, I never had the chance to watch a live hockey game. In fact, my first exposure to the game was the movie The Mighty Ducks. I’m not sure if my nine-year-old brain was focused on the excitement of the game or a cute little Joshua Jackson, but I remember thinking, “I want to play this.” I wore that VHS out from watching it so many times. Little did I know, while dancing to “We Are the Champions” during the ending credits, the impact playing hockey would have on me in the future.
I’m the odd duck in a sports-focused, military family. During childhood, my dad enrolled me in every sport imaginable from the age I could hold a ball (or bat, racquet, or shuttlecock). It didn’t matter to him which sport I was good at so long as I was at least above average in one. Seemingly endless soccer, swim, and t-ball practices saturate my early memories, but the unimaginable terror I would feel before every game stands out above them all. In basketball, if you passed me the ball, I would pass it on or shoot; in soccer, I would pass; in baseball I wouldn’t even get that far, I’d just strike out. No matter how much I practiced, I never quite had the confidence to relax and just enjoy playing the game. Although it was never verbalized, I could feel my dad’s disappointment. You’d think that watching me embarrass myself time after time would weaken his resolve, but it only strengthened it. The more sports I found I wasn’t good at, the more teams he would sign me up for.
Around middle school, my mother decided try her hand at finding my talents. She started taking me to spelling bees, math olympics, and band competitions. Here, at last, I found my place to shine. I would run, beaming, to show my dad the trophies and ribbons. After congratulating me, he would steer the conversation towards my struggling sports career. I would be grilled on my practice regimen or given a lecture on “keeping my head in the game.” It quickly became apparent that he didn’t respect the areas in which I had natural aptitude. I grew frustrated, eventually growing to hate all sports and anyone who played them. No longer was I friendly to everyone. If you were on a team, you were beneath me. I carried my intellect like a shield. My resolve grew as I started accepting the fact that I was gay. Now the enemy had a face. Instead of hating sports because I wasn’t good at them, I hated them because they (I thought) churned out all of the bigoted, hateful teens who made fun of me in the halls, threw me into a headlock in class, and wrote notes about me in the bathroom.
While working through the feelings these experiences left with me, I realized that my misplaced anger had unforeseen consequences. Physical, mental, and emotional health are interdependent, and my narrow mindset was preventing me from becoming a mature, well-adjusted adult. I began to want to play games with people and started to push my body in ways I hadn’t since I was a kid. It started off slowly, a game of kickball here, a frisbee golf game there. I enthusiastically sought ways to be more physically active. I scheduled bike rides and hiking trips with my friends and even had a stint on the gay rugby league. Waiting to be awakened, however, was the love of a sport I’d seen as a child, but never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to play.
In pursuit of a more active lifestyle, I became aware of the new Madison Gay Hockey League. Bars and volleyball courts alike were buzzing with excitement. I went to a game and it was obvious that everyone on the ice was having a blast. I decided that hockey would be my next venture, and went to a MGHA sponsored open skate to see if I could hack it. I quickly realized that I struggled with a basic required skill—skating. This shouldn’t have surprised me, considering I’d only been on ice skates once (at a fourth-grade birthday party), but I was still disappointed. How was I going to play if I couldn’t stay upright? There was only one way to succeed. With almost a year until the next season started, I bought some used equipment and started practicing with my friends.
The anticipation was unbearable, but winter came once again. There was a blur of practices, team rosters, and bruises leading up to the night of the first game. As if on cue my old familiar terror returned, and I was petrified; I threw up and irrationally hoped that I would get injured at the beginning of the game. Anything was better than going out on the ice and embarrassing myself. I didn’t get hurt, but I did fall almost immediately. With my mantra, “everyone falls, everyone falls,” running through my head, I got back up. Without coming in contact with another player or the puck, I fell again. Strangely, I didn’t care. Every time I fell (and in that first game there were plenty), I got back up and just kept going. I started loosening up and realized that I was enjoying myself. I didn’t care if I ever got the puck or if I ever had a super star moment. Just being on the ice, with everyone laughing and smiling, was such a great time.
Halfway through the season, I was surprised to realize that I was no longer nervous before my game. The amount of acceptance and good sportsmanship that exists in the league makes it impossible to carry all those feelings with you. Instead, I wanted more; I was no longer content with just playing. I wanted to score, I wanted to have an awesome pass, and I wanted to grab that puck from someone as though I owned it. Don’t get me wrong. I still missed passes, easy shots, and fell, oftentimes taking other people down with me, but being on the ice was so invigorating I couldn’t help wanting to play harder. I was playing offense this game, not my usual position. We were ahead by a couple of points, so Mark, my coach, decided to switch up the lines to allow us to practice playing other positions. I turned to him and said, “I really think this is my game to get a goal. Can I stay on offense until I do?” He smiled and told everyone, “Ok, new goal for this game, get Benji his first goal!”
I went out excited, knowing I would get it right this time. We took the puck down the ice, and I was on fire. I loved the feeling. I was playing better than ever before. I was passed the puck, and I took the shot. Deflected! That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. I turned around, with my back to the goal, to get the rebound. I got to the puck and backhanded it. I really wasn’t trying to shoot; I just wanted to get the puck closer to the goal. I looked over my shoulder just in time to see the puck slide into the net. I was stunned. I had always thought I would go crazy when I got my first goal, but I couldn’t even raise my hands. I just skated back to the bench. It took a little while to set in, but the crowd cheering my name definitely helped! For this reason I’ve taken to telling everyone that my first goal was an accident. I laugh about it, but I’m still just as proud.
I called my father on the way home from the game to tell him about the goal. He was pretty excited and said, “See, I always knew you were more athletic than you gave yourself credit for.” I fell quiet, mumbled an “I love you,” and hung up. I realized then that I didn’t need what he was trying to give me. I had pushed myself so hard to show him I was worthy of praise, and when the time came, I realized that I stood on my own. I’m an adult, and my confidence comes from within. I appreciated his vote of confidence, but it wasn’t necessary anymore. Like the taunting and harassment I’d received from my peers as a teenager, his behavior didn’t bother me anymore.
This is what gay hockey means to me. It’s a place where anyone, regardless of athletic prowess, sexual preference, gender, or gender identity, can learn to play a sport that is not only fun but also empowering. When I get on the ice I know that I’m doing something that most people don’t have the courage to do, and I know I’m doing it with people who care about me and want to see me succeed. When I fall on the ice, if someone laughs, it’s because I’m already laughing. When I accidentally knock someone down (something I still do frequently), I look into their eyes to help them up, and I see them smiling. When we lose a game, I’m just as excited during the post-game “Good game” conga line than when we win. In the many seasons of gay hockey that I will play in the future, I will wear many jerseys and sing many chants. I will never forget the Skyhawks, my first hockey team. In my team, the jocks, the nerds, the gay guys, the lesbians, the straight guys, and the straight girls come together and love one another. That is a rare and awesome thing. The most important thing that I have learned from the MGHA is that I can do whatever I set my mind to, and if I don’t know where to start, someone’s always there to help me.