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What Gay Hockey Means to Me
By Chuck McKain
Hockey was a constant for me throughout most of my childhood and teenage years. I started playing in the second grade and it quickly became my sport of choice. I was skating three of four times a week, playing two games most weekends, and drilling skills at home everyday. When I look back on my childhood, hockey is tied to many happy memories of good friends, learning new skills, long trips to games with my family, and my dad taking me to McDonalds after particularly good games. However, hockey is also tied with a general sense of anxiety about being “good enough”, “strong enough” and “tough enough”. I rarely was the best player on my teams in terms of overall skill. Instead, I earned my spot on the ice by being relentless in digging pucks out of the corners and winning what one coach called “one-on-one battles”. Playing this type of game necessitated putting on a mask of fearlessness every time I stepped on the ice because any hesitation probably meant that I would lose the puck to another player.
As I grew older, a disconnect started to grow between the role I assumed on the ice and the way I actually felt in the locker room. In fifth grade, another teammate started to call me “queer.” I did not really know what this meant at first (and in hindsight, I do not think he did either), but I knew that it was meant as insult. As this teasing started to get to me, my parents (my father in particular), attempted to give me advice to prevent it in the future. Such advice mostly boiled down to two things: don’t talk too much in the locker room and if you do, make sure to modulate the pitch of your voice so that it is not too high. Gradually, I began to fear getting picked on the locker room. I started to hide a part of myself whenever I arrived at the rink.
As a kid growing up attending Catholic school in a small town in central Pennsylvania, I did not have any true exposure to gay role models or a gay community. I do not remember any explicit discrimination or homophobia in my family or from my teachers, but homosexuality was not talked about in any real sense. I knew what it was, but it was never something I thought I would experience. Looking back, I can recall several vague feelings of being “different” from other boys but I believe my lack of real exposure to a gay community prevented me from truly understanding my sexuality.
The general anxiety in the locker room, coupled with my lack of self-understanding, started to become crippling in my first two years of high school hockey. My high school coaches were much louder than the patient coaches I had grown up playing under and were much harsher in their criticism of mistakes. In addition to off-ice anxiety, I became hesitant on the ice and my playing suffered. I wound up quitting after my sophomore year and not looking back.
It was around the time that I quit playing hockey that I started to truly realize I was gay. Coming out was an extremely long process. I kept my sexuality a secret from everyone but a few close friends until my senior year of college. I did pick up a hockey stick a few times to play intramural floor hockey with my fraternity brothers, but despite their support and praise, I still felt extremely nervous before our pick-up games. Even after officially coming out to all my friends and fraternity brothers in my senior year of college, I thought that hockey was a part of my former life and was not something that was compatible with my newly assumed identity as a gay man.
I had heard about the MGHA shortly after moving to Madison, but with a hectic work schedule that included lots of travelling, I never really researched it or thought about playing. My friends and colleagues Justin Sukup and Molly Costello mentioned that they played in the league one of our work trips and we started talking about my past hockey experience. Still, it took almost a year of nudging from Justin before I actually signed up to play.
I remember being asked before my first practice if I had played before. I answered truthfully, but it almost felt like I was talking about someone else. After all, I had not skated in almost nine years.
Although I did not realize it at the time, I first experienced all the great things about our league culture in my first practice. My nerves and anxiety seemed to disappear with every stride, and I quickly felt a joy of just being able to play hockey that I had not experienced since I was a child. As the season progressed, Sunday night hockey quickly became a highlight of my week. I made many great friends and quickly surprised myself with the self-understanding I gained with each game.
When I began writing this essay, it was difficult to express what gay hockey meant to me after my first year playing. I think it can be best summed up in one particular moment. In our final game of the season, as I prepared to take a face-off, the Lady Gaga song “Telephone” began to play. As cliché as it sounds, I could write a separate essay about my love for Lady Gaga and how her music helped me understand myself as a gay man when I was in college. I did my own quick version of the dance from the music video and then jumped right in to take the face-off just as I would have when I was younger. Gay hockey has helped me reconcile two parts of my personality, two parts that I previously thought were incompatible, and achieve a new level of self-acceptance. Like my coach had said many years ago, hockey for me has been about winning one-on-one battles. Gay hockey helped me win a one-on-
one battle with myself. I used to consider myself a gay man who used to play hockey.
Now I am a proud gay man who loves to play hockey.
Check out Chuck’s player profile here.