Mark Nessel – 2011-2012 Essay

What does Gay Hockey mean to me?

When I started writing this I wasn’t certain, but I figured it out by the end.

I’m straight.  When I was younger, in my early to mid twenties, I identified as Bi, but in hindsight that’s not the case.  When I was in the dorms my first two years of college I was the only non-homophobic straight guy on my floor.  My freshman year, I was actually outed as Gay by the other straight guys because in Des Moines Iowa in 1985 not being homophobic meant you had to be Gay.  And honestly, it didn’t bother me to be thought of as Gay because I liked my friends that were, and most of the straight guys I knew at the time were dicks.

And, the fact is that the notion of being attracted sexually to another man doesn’t disgust me or freak me out or threaten me.  As far as I can recall, that’s always been true.  So, when I was much younger, my own ignorance, and the ignorance and bigotry in my surroundings, led me conclude that since I knew I liked women “that way” and could at least understand liking men “that way” as well, I must be Bi.

So, I can’t really say that my four years in the MGHA has led me to any deeper understanding or connection to the Gay community in Madison.  I have more friends now that happen to be Gay, because the MGHA has led me to meet more Gay people than I have in one place before, but I don’t have any particular insight into or understanding of the Gay community because of it.  I have some relatively new really great friends that have enriched my life tremendously, at least one of whom is one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and I’m grateful for that.

I do know Straight hockey.  I grew up playing Straight hockey, and Straight soccer, and Straight baseball, and Straight wrestling, and some other stuff as well.  I was a jock growing up, but I was a misfit jock.  I was good on the ice, or on the field, or whatever; but really uncomfortable in the locker room.  I started playing hockey at four, and then went on to other sports.  Beginning around high school something changed in the locker rooms, and I never felt comfortable in them after that.  The best way that I can describe it is that they got sexualized.  Suddenly everyone was talking about the girls in a way that made me uncomfortable.  I’d never heard the word “objectification” before, but I now know that that’s what was happening.  Everyone was talking about the size and prowess of their “junk”.  I felt like I’d missed a meeting that everyone else had attended.  The whole thing was so alien to me that I couldn’t even fake it, so I just sat there confused and uncomfortable. I still excelled in the game, but got further and further alienated in the locker room, to the point that I wasn’t friends with anyone on the team, and I stopped caring how the team did.  If I had a good game and we lost I was happy.  If I had a bad game and we won I wasn’t.

Straight sports are aggressive.  There are fights.  You have to prove you’re good enough to play, and keep proving it through the season or someone else will get to play in your place.  Any amount of inappropriate behavior is acceptable if you’re good.  No amount of exemplary behavior can make up for not being as good.  That’s okay for professional athletes, but not recreational athletes.  At least, not to me.

I love hockey.  I love the speed, the skating, the movement of the game.  I love the contact that goes with the checking version of the game that I played until I was eighteen.  But I hate the aggression.  I hate the win at all costs thing that leads otherwise mature and intelligent people to act like dicks.  I don’t want to get into fights on the ice.

Hell, I can’t get into a fight on the ice, but that’s another essay.

I had pretty much decided that I could never play organized hockey again, because the aggression and the fights and all that are such a feature of beer league hockey.  I’d thought about playing.  People that I know had asked me to play in their leagues or on their teams when they heard I grew up playing.  They’d tell me not to worry, it’s “no-check”.  But when I asked them what that means they’d say in reality it doesn’t mean much.  But hey, they’d quickly add, if you grew up playing you’re used to it, right?  And you’re probably good, we could win.

No thanks.

Then I heard about MGHA.  The person who told me about it described being spoken to about his own level of contact in the no-check game.  Not even because of checking, just because he made some contact that was deemed too much.  So, this bunch really means no check, I thought.  I really missed hockey.  I was really burned out on the physical things I was doing.  What the hell, I’d check it out.

That was four years ago, and I’m still here playing Gay hockey.  I love the fact that the league takes everyone.  I love the fact that there’s relatively little interest in the score at the end.  I can be competitive during the game when I’m facing a player that’s as good as I am or better.  I can back off when the person coming towards me is a beginner and give them room to skate some.  And even if they score, or set up a goal, nobody on my bench gets on my case about it (that happened tonight actually).

The league has changed a lot in the last four years.  The level of play has gotten much higher.  That’s inevitable; the new players from the beginning aren’t so new anymore.  The new players that came in experienced are really good.  I’m also four years older than I was when I joined the league, and I wasn’t young four years ago, I’m probably maintaining my level of play, but it’s certainly not improving anymore.

We seem to be at something of a crossroads right now, and maybe having a bit of an identity crisis.  There’s been the suggestion that it’s not Gay hockey anymore.  I don’t know.  I can say for sure it’s not Straight hockey, though.  I know Straight hockey, and this ain’t it.  Not because of the skill level of the game, but because of the aggression level.  Because I can cheer when a new player on the opposing team scores a goal against us and nobody on my team gets mad at me because they’re cheering also.  Because it’s still as much fun to set up a teammate who’s a beginner for a goal as it is to score one myself.  Because finally, at the age of 45, I don’t feel like a misfit in the locker room any more.  I haven’t had that since I was 13, and never thought I would again.

On the ice, Gay hockey is hockey.  On the bench and in the locker room though, it’s a bunch of grown-ups playing a game like we used to as kids.  Not childishly, but playing because it’s fun rather than in order to win.  Enjoying the people that we’re playing with, as well as playing.  If we win, good.  If we lose, also good.

Beginning in high school I started defining what I did tonight as I won tonight, or I lost tonight.  In the MGHA it’s only that I played hockey tonight, and had a blast doing it.

And that, I realize, is what Gay hockey means to me.