Edwin Zhao – 2013-2014 Essay

I first heard about the MGHA while looking for chess partners on Grindr. The odd mix of a demographic not known for sporting excellence and a brutal-looking sport caught my attention. I didn’t bite right away, but I looked over the website and—months later—set up a meeting to talk details.

Patrick must have thought I was quite the pill. I had a list of questions about this so-called MGHA. When are the games? What’s the overhead? How does the G play a part in the HA? I approached the hockey league like I approach most things—with caution and meticulous planning.

Approaching my 30s, I was searching for something to shake up my routine. My upbringing prepared me for a predictable life and career held aloft by prudent decisions. I envied my friends’ stories about the spectacular but ultimately harmless mistakes they made early in life. I often felt like I was cheated out of the opportunity to be reckless.

There were a few years during which I called my parents every few days like a pious son—only to end up telling them that they stifled me. My teenage rebellion came late. The frustration was directed at two human beings who no longer exerted that kind of influence on my life. It took me a long time to realize that no one, no thing had that kind of power over me—even longer to realize that I had to live my life instead of just telling people off.

I think I ultimately chose to join the MGHA because it offered nothing familiar. Being part of an organization with gay in the name and playing a team sport were both firsts for me.

Before stepping onto the ice for the first practice, I had only skated a handful of times. I was the kid that dreaded P.E. Dodgeball seemed to me a game invented by beefy Teutons so they would have an excuse to throw things at people. During the physical assessments, I hung like a limp noodle from the pull-up bars—not able to manage even one. I was flexible, sure. But the stocky gym teacher—who threatened to “whip [me] to death with chopsticks” when I didn’t run fast enough—wasn’t impressed. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why I never thought I was athletic.

Now, a few weeks from playoffs, I’ve reconciled mainstream sports with my worldview. It might not be a revelation for most, but I get the idea now that a sport is defined by the people who play it. In the first few games, I had people from the opposing team tell me where to stand to best cover their position. When players want to improve the game, not just intensify the competition—sports can be a simple pleasure. I wish that perspective could have come to me sooner.

The experience of hockey is incredible. The long process of suiting up makes me feel like I’m stepping onto the sands of an arena or making final preparations for a space odyssey. I even welcome the butterflies of anticipation as the teams wait in files for the gate to close behind the zamboni. Then there’s the sensation of flying over a surface that confounds our naked anatomy, the chase and the quiet roar of concentration! Given more words, I could really wax poetic.

I attended every football game in high school as part of the band—never cared enough to understand the game. Then I went to Duke and forced myself to attend a few basketball games. Cheering felt ridiculous. Sports have no relevance in real life, so why care that much? But in my first game, I distinctly remember screaming my head off—before I could even classify the act as cheering. I wanted so much for my teammates to feel supported, because so many of them were doing something new and brave.

My co-workers in California often ask what it is that makes the 12-hour round trip every weekend worthwhile. A family? A pretty girl? At the start, I explained a bit apologetically that it was a hockey league. But I have long since omitted any qualifications. Sometimes I even throw the gay in there for extra shock value. When I think about the camaraderie, the easy, intimate conversations, the space left by a missing teammate, it feels like a lot of life had happened in just a handful of Sundays. I have no doubt that what I’m doing is worth the trouble.

The rush of playing hockey is just one part of it. Meeting new people was always stressful because windows of opportunity for me to bring up my sexuality would open and close—each time making me wonder whether I was being too evasive or too in-your-face, rather than engaging the person in front of me. Not having to concern myself with that felt fantastic.

More than just silent understanding, teammates would often lend me their perspectives. What is it like to be one of the other letters of LGBT? What is it like to struggle with depression? How does a person find happiness after defeating an addiction? These unasked-for gifts have given me the means to reach out to people I have yet to meet in life. I couldn’t be more grateful.

I’ve lived in Madison for seven years. For four of those years, I worked and played with a young, well-to-do, heteronormative cohort. For the other three, I spent most of my time in hotel rooms in other states. I was fond of Madison, but I couldn’t call it home. Joining the MGHA marked the first time this place became a community my thoughts couldn’t leave behind.

I’ve been meaning to set up a debrief with Patrick to tell him how much the organization means to me. The opportunity hasn’t come up. But since this love letter is addressed to the full cast of the MGHA, this essay was the perfect opportunity to put down my thoughts. Each person has contributed to making this season an unforgettable experience.

In an ironic twist, I’m missing my first MGHA game as I conclude this reflection (sitting in a DTW diner called SlapShotz). The monitor across the way indicates that the flight back would be delayed until after the puck drops. Might I be granted the serenity to accept these things I can do nothing about.