Few things have brought as much joy into my life as playing hockey. A year ago, I never imagined I would be out on the ice, playing hockey, on offence. Through most of the season, each time I put on my gear, I would feel a rush of emotion, and say to myself, “I can’t believe I am actually doing this.” I was realizing something that was a part of my deepest longings—so deeply buried that I was not consciously aware of it—and that a year ago seemed so far out of reach, that it truly was beyond my imagination. Like so many who have shared this experience with me, I learned that I am more than I had ever known myself to be.
In the process I began to pick up a piece of my childhood lost long ago. In the process I found an amazing community of incredible people, a community of which I am immensely proud to be a part. In the process I joined other lgbtqa people exercising leadership in a new arena, hard contact team sports, an arena widely regarded as not for gay people, at a time when we were being publicly marginalized.
The dissonance between my self image and sports began early. As a young child, growing up with minimal contact with persons outside my immediate family, I was unprepared to enter a 700 student elementary school. An inability to effectively track small fast moving objects did not give me good basic playground skills. (When Vivian Lin was patiently coaching me on how to catch the puck with my stick by letting the stick give with puck so it didn’t bounce off, she explained it was like catching a ball. Well Vivian, I understand the principle, but I never learned to catch a ball.) By sixth grade, I was convinced that I was truly un-athletic. After high school gym class, I succeeded in avoiding all team sports and most casual team games.
Thus, when I stepped on the ice with the MGHA for our first game, it was the first team game of any kind I played in 16 years. The last time I had played a team game, it was monastic volleyball, veggie prep vs. kitchen crew, played in our aprons, at a yoga ashram.
So how did I wind up on the ice in full hockey gear, playing with the MGHA? A few years ago I started to notice that I was not as completely un-athletic as I had once believed. I grew comfortable swimming in the Wisconsin River, in an area where the current is swift and deep channels are hidden beneath the silt-laden water. For the past 20 years I have downhill skied one day a year, and I finally noticed that I am a good skier.
I came to Madison to work at the Wisconsin Historical Society, with a vision of history as fascinating, having emotional power, and being fun, but discovered that the historical society wanted someone else. Inside I felt like a piece of driftwood washed up on a beach, even if Madison is a nice beach. I felt the pull of my roots back on the East Coast and my family home near Montreal, Canada. Yet I felt with some certainty that I was not in Madison by chance but to meet someone. By summer of 2007 I was tired of waiting for my purpose in Madison to appear, and was in crisis.
One day, someone mentioned Patrick Farabaugh, the founder of a hockey league and a new magazine, as though surely I would know who Patrick Farabaugh was. I had never heard of Patrick Farabaugh, and, of course, did not know there was a hockey league.
I got the first issue of Our Lives and read several times the articles on the hockey league. I studied the website. To pull me out of crisis, a friend encouraged me to seriously consider joining. A long dormant gene began to express itself. I sent an e-mail planning to arrange a face-to-face meeting, not so much to answer 10 big questions in my mind, as to seek reassurance. The meeting never happened and a deadline drew near.
With much anxiety, I made a bold move; I posted my name and photo on the MGHA website, on the players roster, having met no one in the organization.
Next came the stick taping party, so I bought the cheapest stick I could find, figuring it would not make any difference. It was a large, friendly and overwhelming crowd of people I had never met. During a presentation on hockey sticks, I realized that I knew nothing about hockey. I had not even watched a game in 20 years. Furthermore I had skated only once in a couple of decades, and before that was a mere beginner. I looked at the schedule. Only four practice sessions before the games began. I needed to learn how to skate. Quickly. Gerry Haney kindly helped me select a good pair of skates, and I started practicing at the Shell. There I enjoyed the support of fellow MGHA players and dinners together. And I began to love skating. Then came the practice sessions.
When 10 minutes into the first formal practice we were instructed to skate out to the blue line, stick in hand, and throw ourselves down on the ice, I realized that the adventure had only begun.
I found an extraordinary community, where members are so generous in sharing their knowledge, coaching and supporting each other. Most importantly, for the first time in my life, I found unconditional support and encouragement, no matter how poorly I skated or how badly I played. I did not feel self-conscious and that I was letting somebody down. For the first time in my life, I was in a safe space to learn a sport, any sport; and this sport was a complex sport, a team sport, inevitably a hard contact sport, and a sport few take up in middle life.
One game, for my first unassisted goal, I actually gained full control of the puck, took it down the ice, and fired it into the net. A few minutes later, with only a few seconds left in the game, I again gained control of the puck, skated it down the ice, and team-mate shot it in. It was nice; that was all. It never had the emotional impact for me of a previous game. During that game, when I passed Vivian Lin on the ice, although on the opposing team, she offered me encouragement, knowing I was a raw rooky, and Patrick, the loudest voice on our team called out encouragement to individuals on the opposing team. I still cry when I think about that, something so rare and so precious, I do not have words to express it.
The great emotional power of the MGHA is that we matter to each other. When someone lands hard on the ice, often it is a member of the opposing team who pauses to check if the one down is OK. Between periods, in a game where one goalie was having a bad night, and no doubt needed encouragement, the opposing goalies met in the center of the rink, in front of everyone. It was a sweet moment.
Yes, there is such a thing as gay hockey, and you don’t have to be gay to play. Gay hockey is having persons of a vast range of age, size and level of skill on the ice at the same moment, and somehow figuring out how to play together. Gay hockey is the joy of the game played with the support and encouragement of one another, celebrating each person’s achievements. Gay hockey is emotionally embracing one’s team-mates in locker rooms with both genders and a broad spectrum of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. It is about embracing each individual history that led us to that locker-room. I am glad that people refer to us as the Madison Gay Hockey Association, or the gay hockey league, not as Madison Thunder.
I found a lost piece of myself and I found community. I learned to enjoy being aggressive and competing for the winning score. I also learned that when we play with enthusiasm, with joy, with love, with respect, with integrity, to the best of our ability—regardless of the scoreboard—we win the game. So it can be off the ice as well.