Bryan Zaramba – 2019-2020 Essay

“while my friendships in the league were still forming, it was my progress as an athlete that surprised and sustained me.”

Bryan’s Profile

What does the MGHA mean to me? When I sat down to write about what the MGHA means to me, it was shocking to me how quickly I realized my feelings about the MGHA could be distilled into a single word: love. Love from others in a supportive, caring community; and love for myself as a gay man in that community, and as an athlete.

I joined the MGHA in 2018, on the recommendation of a stranger on the internet, at a time of enormous change in my life. I was in the process of moving, by myself, from my lifelong home in New England to Wisconsin, a state I had been to only twice and knew exactly one person. Knowing that I would need to make friends, I asked Reddit where to meet gay people in Madison, and a former member of the MGHA messaged me and recommended that I join. Despite the fact that I hadn’t played organized sports since middle school, when I had been allowed to quit baseball after getting hit in the face three practices in a row, I put in an application.

My first year in the MGHA is a bit of a blur to me, even just a year later. So much was happening in my life–learning a new job, finding my way around a new city, figuring out how to live by myself–but the MGHA became a source of stability and joy in my life. As the months went on, I started spending most of the week waiting for Sunday night, and for the Wednesdays when I and my new friends would go to the Shell for extra skating practice. 

Initially, while my friendships in the league were still forming, it was my progress as an athlete that surprised and sustained me. For the first time in a very long time, I was doing something physical that required patience and practice, and I could feel myself getting better, week after week. After years of complacency in my personal life, I had forgotten what it felt like to be proud of my achievements, and the MGHA gave me the opportunity to play a game and to genuinely enjoy the process of getting better. The inclusive style of play in MGHA allowed me to feel like I was contributing, even while I was falling down, or whiffing the puck, or turning so slowly I was behind the other team’s defense when they whisked by me. 

On the ice, the MGHA has given me the space to learn who I am as an athlete after a lifetime of thinking of myself as a watcher of sports, not a participant. But off the ice, the MGHA has provided me with something even more valuable: a community that genuinely cares about each other, both on an individual level and on an institutional level.

One of the things that struck me most about the MGHA was the earnest friendliness of almost everyone in the league. Coming from New England, a place where people are generally reserved about making new friends, I was pleasantly surprised about how open people in the MGHA were to sitting next to new people in the stands and inviting those people into their circles of friends. 

This year, I decided to volunteer as a captain and on a number of committees to help give back to the community. What I appreciate most about participating on the “back end” of the MGHA is how that spirit of friendliness and inclusion is cultivated, intentionally, at the institutional level. It’s not just that I happened to sit next to people who were friendly last year; it’s that the volunteers who run the MGHA put hours of thoughtful discussion and effort into making the MGHA a positive experience for everyone who participates. Sometimes they’re faced with tough decisions that not everyone is happy with, but they make those decisions with a spirit of giving back to their community. 

But the MGHA isn’t just an exceptionally friendly developmental hockey league. It’s also an explicitly LGBTQ-friendly space, and it is unlike any I’ve ever been in before. What I love about the MGHA as a space for LGBTQ-identifying people is that, as a player and member, it feels so effortlessly supportive of everyone’s gender identity and sexual orientation, while focusing on your inclusion in the hockey community and your development as a player. Before I came out, one of my biggest concerns was that I felt like I didn’t belong in gay spaces because being gay wasn’t a central part of my identity, and I didn’t feel “gay enough.” For me, the revelatory experience of joining the MGHA was finding a gay space that didn’t feel like it was making assumptions about who I was, or what I wanted out of that space. The MGHA is set up to give each player (or fan in the stands) the space to bring who they are to the table, and to encourage all of us to be supportive and understanding as we figure out what exactly that is.

So, what does gay hockey mean to me? It’s my life, it’s my friends, it’s my community. And if it’s not already yours, I hope you join soon.