Jon Zimmerman – What Gay Hockey Means to Me – 2023-2024 Essay

Jon’s 2023-2024 essay won this year and will be featured in Our Lives Magazine.

Two years ago, I had never even considered watching sports, let alone playing in one. At the time, I was struggling with depression and was losing interest in things I used to enjoy doing. Activities like yoga, biking, playing piano, activities where I could be alone in my head but still exist in the world without really having to be a part of it. Activities for me to momentarily forget the overwhelming heaviness of depression and loneliness I felt every waking moment. I was living in a gradually darkening place, and I felt out of control to stop it. It was during this time that I was introduced to hockey.

I had started seeing someone who was an MGHA player, and he invited me to come watch his game. My first memory of that night was the smell of the ice arena when I first walked through the doors. It smelled like coolant and popcorn, an odd but somewhat pleasing aroma, something unique and somehow fitting. Sitting in the stands, I had no clue what to expect. I felt awkward and nervous about being an “outsider” around the other experienced hockey fans. From the stands, I looked down at the ice, trying to take it all in. It seemed so big, felt so cold, and I felt out of place. But then I spotted my guy and he looked up and waved to me from the ice. In that moment, all of the anxiety and awkwardness melted away. I felt a sense of validation and could let myself relax and enjoy the game.

As the game began, I was absolutely mesmerized by the players gliding around the ice in their colorful jerseys. It looked like so much fun, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off the game. Some of the fans sat down next to me and helped me to understand some of the game’s rules. I felt welcomed and surprised at their openness and enthusiasm.

Afterward, remembering how much fun the players were having skating around and playing on the ice, I was curious to explore ice skating to see if I could do it. I bought a pair of skates and started going to public skates, crawling along the boards at first, feeling eager but looking ridiculous. All the while, I kept coming to watch MGHA games. Over the next few months, I began to meet and make friends with more of the players, and they took the time to help me learn how to ice skate, for which I was so grateful. At first, my only intention was to learn about the sport and ice skating so I could share in a hobby with the guy I was seeing. However, gradually, as the weeks went by, I grew more intrigued by the game, and my focus shifted and transformed into my own genuine excitement and love for the sport.

Things did not work out how I would have liked with the guy I was seeing, which left me heartbroken. Adding to that pain was him telling me he did not want me to come to his games anymore. I felt upset because, by that time, what I was really enjoying about the MGHA games was being around the enthusiastic players and fans and being caught up in the excitement of watching the games with them. It felt like I was beginning to be accepted into a unique community of people from many backgrounds and interests, all of us bonding together over the sport of hockey. Sundays were “hockey” days, and it was the highlight of my week. Nevertheless, even though it hurt, I stayed away as he asked. A few weeks went by, staying home, but I continued my skating practice and hockey research. Eventually, he apologized, saying it was not his place to stop me from attending the games. I eagerly began coming again every Sunday, watching more games, and meeting more people, and he and I are still friends to this day.

After watching the 2023 Classics games, I felt like I did not want to be just a spectator anymore. I decided I would try learning to play hockey. I spent hours and hours, day after day, at the Shell and, eventually, the Bakke ice arenas for public skates. I ever so gradually went from crawling along the boards to clumsily skating to actually skating. When summer rolled around, I borrowed some hockey gears and went to my first stick and puck. Wearing the gears for the first time, I felt awkward and silly, but going back, again and again, it became like my suit of armor. Later that summer, I attended the MGHA skill sessions, where I learned all the basics of the game and skating. I kept going to more public skates and open stick and pucks, getting as much ice time as possible.

Eventually, fall came around, and I was now a player in the MGHA, on one of the best teams with one of the best captains. My biggest worry about joining the league was that I would get discouraged or receive harsh feedback about being bad at the game. But I was surprised at how much the opposite my experience was. Everyone was so encouraging and supportive of each other; I could miss passes, fall, skate slowly, and I was always encouraged to keep going with enthusiastic cheers from my teammates. I cannot think of any other place where taking a risk of learning something so challenging and new could be done in such a safe space.

Hockey has saved me and has helped me find new purpose and fulfillment in my life. Aside from the pure thrill and joy of flying down a sheet of ice on steel blades covered in gears with sweat pouring down your face, the sense of friendship, support, and comradery I found as part of the MGHA has helped me through some of the darkest, most difficult times this last year. Hockey has given me an outlet to pour all of my emotion, pain, loneliness, and heartbreak into a fierce, fun, and healthy activity. From all this, one thing I’ve learned is that it is tough to feel sad when you’re on skates. 

Putting on that MGHA jersey for the first time before my first game, the feel of my skate touching the ice, the peculiarly pleasing smell of the arena, it occurred to me—here I am, a full year later, I am on the ice that I was once mesmerized by from in the stands. I began to think about my first time in the arena, about how nervous and awkward I felt, and wondered if it was someone else’s first time. I looked up to the place in the stands where I first sat, reflecting on how different of a person I am now compared to back then. I imagined my past self up there, watching his future self down here. I looked up, and waved.