Fast forward ten years. In the summer of 2012, I moved from New Mexico to Madison to start a new job. Madison was an entirely new city for me, and I hardly knew anyone, so I was determined to get involved with something where I could make new friends.
Around the same time, my friend Lexi had dragged me into watching hockey with her. I was living in Canada in 2010, so of course I had to watch Olympics hockey, which was probably my first inkling of interest in the sport. But I didn’t have the time or attention span to keep up with NHL hockey…or so I thought, until I found myself actively seeking out games and watching with bated breath, even though I didn’t understand half of what was going on. I thought maybe if I watched for long enough, a light bulb would go on in my head and all of the whistles and plays would suddenly make sense to me. When that didn’t happen, I started entertaining the thought of learning how to play hockey, because then at least I’d get an explanation of the rules. If that were my goal, I decided, then it’d be okay if I were terrible at it.
I wasn’t thinking about hockey when I decided to move to Madison, but I quickly realized that I couldn’t be living in a better place for it. On a whim, I googled “Madison hockey” and the website for the Madison Gay Hockey Association came up as one of the top results. It sounded perfect—too good to be true.
The problem was, I was nervous enough about the idea of hockey and trying something new. And the thought of joining the Gay Hockey Association felt terrifying for entirely different reasons.
I’ve never been a part of a gay community before. I’ve never really felt like I fit into the communities I have been a part of, but rather like someone lurking around the outskirts, unsure of my welcome. That’s how I was used to living my life. Growing up, the few gay role models I had were teachers involved in the GSA, whom I observed from afar. I was too intimidated to talk to people I knew were gay and too scared to talk about being gay. Gay people were brash and unafraid. They wore rainbows on their backpacks and wrists and didn’t care what other people thought. They talked about girls they thought were cute—classmates, actors, coffee shop baristas—in places where anyone could overhear. Whereas by the time I graduated college, I could count the number of people I’d come out to on one hand.
Heart hammering, I filled out the new player form and submitted it anyway. Which is how I found myself a month later, armed with a bag full of hockey gear and a stick I had no idea how to use, having one of the weirdest thoughts possible asI walked into the locker room: What if I’m not gay enough? All of the returning players looked so cool, and clearly knew each other, and I couldn’t imagine myself fitting in. And even the other newbies seemed at ease with both each other and themselves.
I don’t remember much from that first practice anymore, but a few moments still stand out vividly. Watching Ames hockey stop inches away from the boards like it was easy, and despairing over ever being able to do that. Me falling over backwards every time we would stop and gather to listen to the coaches, because I was used to figure skates and kept forgetting that in hockey skates you couldn’t lean back as far. A kid with the biggest smile on his face, who skated fast even though he looked like he barely knew where his feet were and crashed into the boards at both ends. I got up the courage to smile back at him, and he introduced himself as Chue.
I was about as awful at hockey as I expected. I could skate around okay, but I couldn’t stop at all. I had no idea what to do with my stick. And I couldn’t carry the puck for even a second unless I slowed down to a snail’s pace. None of that mattered though, because no one was yelling at me for not doing things right. The complete opposite, actually—all I ever heard was constant encouragement.
Our second practice was a week later, on my 24th birthday. Even though no one knew it was my birthday, I remember thinking that learning how to play hockey was the best possible gift.
From then on, I was hooked. It didn’t seem to matter that I was awkward and didn’t know what to say to anyone off the ice, because we were all awkward on the ice, and no one cared. We came from vastly different backgrounds and experiences, and we came to the MGHA for a variety of reasons, but now that we were here, we were in this together. As we learned how to play hockey the MGHA way, I made more friends than I ever expected. Just being surrounded by people who accepted me for who I am made some vital part of me that I didn’t even realise was constantly on guard relax.
I look up to every single person in this league. For being brave enough to play hockey, for being brave enough to try, for not giving up, for having fun, for falling down and laughing about it. For loving hockey enough to dedicate countless hours to it.For leading by example, in both hockey and life. For showing up to play, week in and week out, as much as you can. For being amazing.For being yourselves.
This is what gay hockey means to me.
It means that even when I could barely keep track of the puck, much less the rest of the game, I never once felt like my teammates resented me or wished they could have a better player in my place. They had more confidence in me than I had in myself. It took a while for it to truly sink in that no one was going to be mad at me whenever I went offside or turned over the puck or failed to catch an easy pass. But once it did, I stopped worrying about making mistakes and started trying to prove myself wrong about not being good at sports.
It means that the amazing level of support I felt from my team exists throughout the entire league. We help each other up when we fall down and we celebrate each other’s achievements like they’re our own. We show our support and caring for each other in so many ways, both on the ice and off, that listing all of the moments I can think of would be overwhelming. I know many people have their own stories to tell—personally, the one that blew me away the most was when a group of us played in a pond hockey tournament this year. Despite the well-below-freezing temperatures, our friends showed up at 8 a.m. to cheer us on (with a cowbell!).
It means that I am not only a part of a community—a hockey community and a gay community – but I’ve found myself right in the middle of it. Even a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me I would be one of the people in charge of planning championship night. I’m not that good at putting myself out there, and I never expected that I could be a part of something so big and feel like I truly belong, but you guys drew me in and showed me what it feels like to be surrounded by wholehearted acceptance. Because of this league, I am proud to be a gay hockey player.
Gay hockey means challenging yourself to do things you’ve never done before. It’s about overcoming things that you think are impossible. It’s about having the courage to even try.
Before I joined the MGHA, I could skate well enough to get around the rink without falling, but not much more. I couldn’t skate particularly fast, but it didn’t matter—back then, skating with my arms spread wide felt like flying.
Two years and 287 hours of ice time later, I can feel my skate blades dig into the ice with each stride. I don’t feel like I’m about to launch myself into flight. Instead, I feel like I’m landing. Like I’ve finally found a place for myself. Like I have something in my life that’s worth holding on to. Like I’m coming home.