Mark Nessel – 2012-2013 Essay

As I submitted an essay last year, let’s call this Part 2…

Over the last two seasons our hockey league has been in a state of transition around what Gay hockey means, that transition is still on-going and its destination seems yet to be determined.  In the course of fulfilling my role as a team lead this season I had to help another straight player figure out some changes to make in his play style that brought my definition of Gay hockey into much sharper focus, and I had some realizations that have not so much changed what Gay hockey means to me, as more sharply refined the definition.  When I shared this with the player in question, and our other team lead (also straight), the light bulb of this particular idea got brighter for them as well.

Initially,  Gay hockey was for me, and (I think) a lot of other players, primarily about what goes on in the locker rooms and at the bar after the games.  The League’s mission statement leads to this conclusion, especially in this sentence:  “We are especially committed to providing opportunities for those who have historically felt uncomfortable in traditional sports settings to learn and teach ice hockey in a safe, supportive, and fun environment.”  To be clear, it’s not my intention to critique the League’s mission statement, or to propose changes to it.  I’m only pointing out that it endorses my initial notion that Gay hockey is mostly defined by what goes on in the periphery of the game.

Even more explicitly, Gay hockey was hockey where the locker room banter didn’t include calling each other “faggot” or boasting about what we intended to do with (or to) our date after the game.  Growing up playing straight sports meant I spent a lot of time in that kind of locker room.  My life-long discomfort with that sort of behavior is one of the reasons that I prefer to play in the MGHA.

Hockey is a sport, and sports are competitive.  That fact carries with it the underlying assumption that winning the game is paramount.  I had been operating under the assumption that Gay hockey meant locker rooms that aren’t hostile and a focus on sportsmanship and stricter adherence to the rules, but that the underlying assumption that the point is to win the game is still paramount.

In actuality, if that were true, we wouldn’t be playing Gay hockey.  We’d be playing Straight hockey where it’s okay to be Gay.

What I’ve come to realize is that Gay hockey is a challenge to that most fundamental assumption about sports.  I’m not saying that winning isn’t more fun than losing, or that as a team lead I don’t encourage my team to try to win the game.  But the imperative to win the game isn’t paramount to everything else.  It’s a priority, but no higher a priority than the priorities of sportsmanship, inclusiveness, and safety that are explicated in our mission statement.

At the end of the 11-12 season the league president pointed out that nine of the top ten goal scorers in the league were straight men.  I know that some in the league took that as trying to make the league less welcoming to straight players.  I would like to suggest, respectfully, that the players that saw that statement as trying to create a rift between Gay and Straight players missed the point.  There are Gay players in the league that have played their whole lives, and are great hockey players by any standard.  The fact that those players weren’t amongst the top goal scorers meant that they were choosing to play the game with a different set of priorities.  Therein lies, for me, the definition of Gay hockey.

Gay hockey means that if we can’t win inclusively, we don’t win.  It means that we keep our beginning players on the ice for their shifts when we’re down on the scoreboard.  It means that, as an advanced and physically large player, I moderate how I challenge opposing beginners and smaller players for the puck.  If I can’t challenge them in a way that isn’t aggressively physical then I give up possession.  It means that, while I’m capable of carrying the puck end to end on my own, I rarely do so because I’m looking for opportunities to pass.  It means I pass to the beginners on my team when they’re open, even if passing to that teammate has already resulted in multiple turnovers.  I could go on, but I’ll leave the examples at that.

The point that the president was making was that the straight players in question were playing Straight hockey where it’s okay to be Gay, as opposed to Gay hockey.  This is a Gay hockey league, I think it’s incumbent upon everyone to try to play Gay hockey.

How the league defines Gay hockey appears to me to be very much up in the air, and the way that I’m defining it here is not ubiquitous.  I think the league moved this past season a bit away from Straight hockey where it’s okay to be Gay, and more towards Gay hockey.  I hope that the movement in that direction continues.