The Hockey Saga Prequel to My Yet-Unwritten Epic
– Or –
Why My Skates Are More Comfortable Than Any Pair of Shoes I Will Ever Own
I’m a product of a white, middle-class suburb. Growing up on the greener side of the municipal, racial, and economic border in “the safest [suburb] in the US” (determined as such for seven years running during my childhood), I led a considerably sheltered life. High school was attended, lawns were maintained, and bowling balls were tossed. Errant street hockey pucks over fences and the crowded subway after a Sabres game, packed to vacate the dead downtown area, were among the few annoyances.
The town I grew up in bordered a burned-out ex-steel-and-grain industrial metropolis, whose unemployed, abandoned streets were more post-apocalyptic than post-industrial. It was the tarnished oversized buckle on the American rust belt. Catholicism ruled and censored much of the city during its zenith, but the newly born generation and the newly dead economy left religious hope in the gutter and grasped only the fear and hatred of diversity, which was mostly handed down from parents. White-flight, depopulation, and narcotics shattered one of the Northeast’s most racially-integrated, progressive, and cosmopolitan cities, leaving the pieces segregated, poor, and murderous.
My parents never valued athletic endeavors, so despite my middle-class upbringing, the first set of ice hockey gear was always just out of reach of their pocketbook. An eight-dollar plastic stick and some PVC pipe for a home built goal was enough to get out on the pavement. Some extra Christmas money helped me buy my first pair of rollerblades. They were sweet.
I matured into young adulthood as a proud Eagle Scout. Scouting gave me many tools to live life: character, leadership, knowledge, kindness, and teamwork, and all were exercised as I led my troop with smiles through three feet of snow to collect food for the local homeless shelters and taught first aid out in the wilderness on rainy, 40-degree afternoons. Despite all I had gained from scouting, diversity was curiously absent. I had never met a homeless person. To my knowledge, I had never met a gay person.
Attending the largest public university in the state somewhat cracked the egg. Suddenly, I was interacting academically, intellectually, and socially with Asians, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Hindus, and Italians – Americans. I thought I had finally found the huddled masses yearning to be free… in a majority-white, -straight, economically-abled institution of higher education. I was able to scoff at my father’s self-admitted pride that I “was able to compete academically with the Chinese math whizzes.”
I decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in both chemistry and physics. It was a bane to my social life.
<scene: A busy kegger at a run-down frat house. Music is loud, alcohol is voluminous.>
Attractive undergraduate female: “What’s your major?”
Over-achieving undergraduate freshman male: “Chemistry and physics.”
Attractive undergraduate female: “Oh. I hated physics in high school.”
<Attractive undergraduate female immediately flees the scene of the social crime.>
The time required to pursue this academic feat forced my choice not to join the university’s intercollegiate hockey team. My athletic pursuits were then limited to captaining several bad floor and roller hockey teams toward abysmal records in chippy, goon-filled, intramural leagues. I served a six-month suspension after an infraction purposely committed to coax the referees to pull the whistles from their pockets, whistles that had been put away too long before. With lots of effort and to my own surprise, I did actually develop into a somewhat legitimate goaltender in that climate. Later life lessons would teach that goaltending skills accumulated in sneakers on gymnasium floors don’t translate well to skills in ice skates on ice. By the end of my collegiate hockey campaign, I could barely ice skate.
Once I moved to Madison to continue my academic career in graduate school, I immediately sought out opportunities to take the plunge into ice hockey. I had practiced ice skating over the few months previous to moving and I was ready to give intramurals a try. I was lucky to be selected from an intramural free agent list, and even luckier to be selected by a team of great individuals. They played the game to have fun and they were patient and accepting of my developing skating ability. They taught me a lot about the game, and their experience and sportsmanship rubbed off on me, demonstrating what the joy of a clean, competitive, fun hockey game could be like. I learned that to develop better and faster, that I needed to play more, a lot more. Hockey on ice was going to be fun.
It was January 2007. By day, I was a determined graduate student in physics looking for the energy of the future from nuclear fusion. By night, I was a zombie, roaming for more opportunities to play ice hockey. The short intramural hockey seasons were not enough to feed my now-insatiable appetite for ice time. I used the tool now well in place in every twenty-something’s toolbox. I Googled.
<scene: An apartment’s dimly-lit computer workspace.>
Graduate hockey zombie: “Google, I demand you find me more hockey in Madison.”
Google: “Are you feeling lucky?”
Graduate hockey zombie: “Yes. Yes I am.”
Graduate hockey zombie: “Google, are you crazy!? I can’t play for the Badgers. I’m not feeling that lucky.”
<Click, click click.>
<Several links are displayed. Several of them point towards one website.>
Graduate hockey zombie: “Madison…Gay…Hockey Association. Gay?”
As I had known it, gay was a malicious adjective used by vocabulary-stunted teenagers as a synonym for stupid or lame. As a straight man, I had never thoughtfully contemplated anything or anyone that was actually “gay.” I browsed the MGHA website and I considered what I saw. I wanted to play hockey, but I wasn’t gay. Inherently, I wasn’t a lesbian either. I thought to myself, “On the ice, what is the difference between a gay hockey player and a straight hockey player?” My rational side piped up, “nothing. There is no difference.” I had realized that playing hockey on ice was a great equalizer of off-ice differences, and this realization made my next decision easy. I wanted to play hockey in the MGHA.
After contacting the league, I was invited to spectate for a game. On that Sunday night, when I walked through the set of glass doors from the rink lobby to the rink stands, it hit me like a bus. The air was cold and dry. It stunk like ice additive and sweat. The rink steelwork echoed puck slaps and skate cuts. The love of the game welcomed me home. Someone scored and the crowd cheered. I did a double-take. A crowd? To my surprise and delight, there were roughly seventy fans loudly cheering the teams on. I watched the rest of the games that night, watching the players’ skills, the beginners’ falls, the great goals, and the missed passes. I quietly sat in my straightness.
I was assigned to a pastel-colored jersey-wearing team that featured a very skilled gay hockey player, a superbly friendly lesbian captain, a crotchety old vulgarity of a straight man, a gay drag queen beginning skater, a transsexual goalie, and several other friendly, memorable characters, who I now consider good friends. I was assigned to the team because they were struggling in games and expected to lose their most skilled player. Despite my developing skating abilities, I played as hard as I could for that team, and we played our way through several upsets to win the league championship as fans cheered us on. Playing a game I was in love with made for a supremely welcoming experience for me as I ventured into a community I’d never contemplated, let alone immersed myself in. I found myself making great new friends so quickly, that I hadn’t noticed that the secret uniqueness of my straight sexual orientation in this community was already uncovered and dismissed with insignificance.
In the late summer of 2007, I was asked to be the captain of Dyno-White. I was honored by the opportunity, and I truly committed to teaching the game of hockey to players both beginner and veteran. I taught players how to shoot. I demonstrated to players how to jump over the boards. I helped them learn to stay onsides. I prepped new centers on face off tricks. I made plays that forced them to make better ones. I showed myself how to teach hockey players. I showed hockey players how to teach themselves.
Five Step Guide for Good Face Off Success:
- Make conversation with the opposing center before the puck drops. Ask a question, how the weather is, anything. Talk a little shit if you want to. Get your opponent to think about anything but where they should try to draw the puck and how they should be doing it. If you’re lucky, it’ll also throw off their reaction timing as they try to mentally search for verbs to describe thundersnow and adjectives to describe your mother.
- Keep your eyes on the puck in the referee’s hand, not on the face off dot. If you watch the dot, you’ll always be surprised by where and when the puck drops.
- Start to react when the puck comes out of the referee’s hand, not when it hits the ice. It doesn’t always matter what you’re about to do with the puck, as long as you’re the one doing it first.
- This is the tricky part. Refer to the decision made in Step 0, the step in which you analyzed who’s lining up and where, which part of the ice you’re lining up at, where the opposing and home goals are, and the direction you want to draw the puck, all of which was completed before you crouched at the face off dot. There’s several ways to draw the puck in this pre-determined direction, but I like two in particular:
- If you’re quick, slide your blade forward into the dot ¾ of the way in and ¾ of the way to the opposite side from where you want to put the puck, then pull or push the puck in the direction you want, and when you do it, you do it quick.
- If you’re not quick, with your lower arm in a strong punching motion, use your stick shaft to smash your opponent’s stick shaft laterally away from the face off dot as soon as the puck leaves the referee’s hand. Aim for a spot on their shaft about two inches above their blade. With the opponent’s stick momentarily out of the way, free the puck in the direction you want.
- In the event of a face off win, commence goal scoring (separate guide). In the event of a face off loss, stand in a manner that obstructs the progress of the opposing center without attracting pesky interference calls.
Dyno-White was all heart, and is to date the most emotionally-bonded team I have ever played for. The camaraderie built through the season made every teammate’s love for the game more pure and worthwhile. Each game we fought hard not always to win, but to live up to our coach’s mantra of making our teammates look good. The idea was to make plays as pretty as possible from our teammates’ point of view. Give great assists by making great passes. Shoot to score when your teammate makes a great pass. I would take that mantra to every other team I would ever captain for. That season forged unforgettable memories and lifelong friendships through on-ice play, off-ice tomfoolery, and the sharing of the pure love of the game of hockey. It is these most joyous memories that I will carry with me every time I lace my skates. Putting on shoes doesn’t compare.
<scene: On-ice before one of the last games of the season. Dyno-White Coach Tammy Champion takes to the ice to warm up, making it the first time ever that she has skated with Dyno-White. She had broken her foot a few short weeks before the season started, and had hobbled to the bench on crutches every game of the season to give instruction and inspiration to the team, all without playing a single minute of ice time. The team’s pride and joy for Tammy is palpable. The captain’s respect and admiration for her dedication to the game and the MGHA is overwhelming.>
Captain: “Tammy, get your ass in gear!”
The Dyno-White experience was enough of a strong positive influence on my teammates and I to spark an explosion of volunteerism for the benefit of the MGHA. Players from Dyno-White would go on to fill the roles of six members of the Board of Directors, five committee chairpersons, four committee staff volunteers, and would devote hundreds of person-hours of planning, coordinating, and laboring to continue the mission of the league. To date, I have been honored to serve the league mission with the Hockey Operations Committee for two years and with the Board of Directors for one year. I have proudly enjoyed my time working with other committed hockey players and cooperating with people and businesses in Madison to further the success of the MGHA. I have enjoyed more than ever working with others to set, work toward, and accomplish the goals of the MGHA.
<scene: Outside the hockey rink after a game. A former graduate student of physics is learning the impossibility of unemployed life the hard way. After graduating, and without a job or any prospects, the threat of him moving from the MGHA to live in his parents’ home far away is unnervingly real. The news is out and the rumors are true: if he doesn’t get hired in the next week, he will lose it all. A somewhat muscular friend of the league and manager at a local sporting goods store steps forward.>
Beefcake: You can sell hockey equipment. How much money do you need to make to stay in Madison?
Serving the MGHA has demonstrated to me that a diverse group of people can join together through shared love and aligned concern to accomplish great things. My previous realization needed some tailoring. Playing hockey is not the great equalizer of off-ice differences. The virtue of understanding, acceptance, and cooperation is the great equalizer, and I will continue to hone these tools of cooperation among true diversity forever.
I plan to someday return to live in my once-great city. I plan to use these new powerful tools in my life. I will smash prehistoric cultural and economic barriers and topple saturating indifference to rescue the city from its fiery decline. I will stand on the ashes of prejudice and declare a new era. I will lay the first bricks. I will work hard with people of differing backgrounds that have a shared love and aligned concern to be the united pillars in the reconstruction and reemergence of that fallen metropolis. I will never forget the Madison Gay Hockey Association and what it has bestowed upon me.
The joking, the skating, the passing, the scoring, the winning, the losing, the anger, the cheering, the leading, the following, the sorrow, the pride, the friendship, the planning, the building, the striving, the accomplishing, the horizon-broadening, the teaching, the learning, the understanding, the accepting, and the cooperating sum to an ultimate meaning of gay hockey to me:
Hope for my hometown.