Category: 11-12 Essays

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.

James Parens – 2011-2012 Essay

I joined the league three years ago, wondering if this was a way to mentally and physically get through the winter months.  Having lived in Madison my entire life, one would think that I was at least relatively accepting of the ice, snow and cold; in reality, my tolerance to the cold weather and the elements has dwindled over the years, and with that, an addition of a little seasonal-affective depression and some serious hibernation and hermitage.  I was also feeling a little isolated from the queer community, and wanted a way to see people every week, and get to meet new friends.

I had never played any organized hockey before.  When I was younger (about 20+years ago) I played a bit on the outdoor rinks on Madison’s east side. I wouldn’t say that any of those games helped much in the way of developing any real skills or strategic understanding for the game.  It really looked more like a cross between ice-fencing and unsynchronized ice ballet. Not a lot of actual hockey was happening, just inflated egos and bruised shins.  It was also not a sport I watched a lot, other than being a fan of Badger hockey and maybe going to one or two games a season.  I was highly curious, albeit skeptical, whether being in a hockey league, gay or not, was a good fit for me.

My three years with this league has surpassed any expectations I had for the organization and for myself. Three years of highs and lows, wins and losses, successes and failures.  I have been on the 1st place team, the last place team, and this past season with a team that finished in the standings somewhere in the middle.  But this only scratches the surface of my experience with the league.  The community of folks in the league has been a big reason why I choose to come back each season.  It’s a slightly different definition of community than I have felt in other places.  There are still people in this league that I don’t know at all, or very little. There are folks who come from different backgrounds and have different life realities than my own.  I never thought about that much the first two seasons I played.  I was just happy to meet new people and work at learning how to play hockey.  Entering this season of hockey, I learned even more about this group, and even more about myself.

In the off-season, I started taking steps to change my gender from female to male. There were definitely some anxieties about this in different areas of my life, and starting a new season with the hockey league, where last year I was one name, and now registering under another (but as a returning player) was one of them.  It’s not that the hockey league doesn’t have any transgender individuals- we do.  I just didn’t know of anyone who started transitioning after playing hockey for a couple of years.  From the very beginning of the season, emailing the Operations Committee about this change, as well as the very first practice, I felt immediately at ease.  People were almost seamless in changing my name and pronoun in their heads and in speaking with me.  Any questions that people asked me were incredibly kind and respectful.  I have felt incredibly supported in all areas of my life regarding this change, but I really needed this organization to be a place where I didn’t have to explain myself.  Not only did this league accept and support me, playing hockey this season has increased my own acceptance of me, and how I define myself.

I have a special love for this league and the people associated with it because it’s been a constant for me over the past three years when my life outside of hockey has been anything but constant.  In the past three-plus years, I have found the love of my life, bought a house, got engaged, began co-parenting two boys, quit my job to start a new career and started transitioning my gender.  I am the happiest I have ever been in my life, but large changes create anxiety, stress and sometimes, shaky confidence.  My Sunday nights in the fall and winter months have become an outlet for stress, as well as a familiar place to see friends and the chance to play hockey with some outstanding individuals.  Playing hockey has been both a reset from the week and a place to celebrate accomplishments.  (Heck, I celebrate the fact that at the age of 41, I am healthy and able to play hockey and plan to do so for as long as I can.)

This last season has been the most rewarding for me as a person.  My team is an exceptional group of people, and I appreciate and respect each and every one of them.  I admire how we developed into a group that really cares about one another, and that we all worked together to become a united team when faced with adversity.  Being able to walk into a locker room and be greeted by teammates, getting to hear little bits about people’s lives and just engage in overall banter shows how special the league can be for a person. Total Team Acceptance.  The Violet Offenders will always have a special place in my heart when I look back at my hockey history with this league.  Not only did I have a fantastic season with them, but this season is where I learned to define and accept myself, learned how transitioning gender affects one’s hockey game, and how this league really has the potential to be everything that has been envisioned.

This league’s newly adopted mission states: “The Madison Gay Hockey Association is an adult developmental ice hockey league for people of all sexualities and gender identifications. 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. We aspire to the highest standards of sportsmanship and promote integration of the wider Madison community into the gay community”.  We are a diverse group, and I love that we have people who identify themselves in so many different ways.  It goes way beyond “gay” or “straight”- the diversity of our players in this league include ages 22- 48, single, married, in a relationship, parents, grandparents, students, professionals, working class, middle class and unemployed.  A player might be highly skilled at the sport, a complete beginner, or anything in between.  Our diversity goes way beyond our mission statement.

In the six years of this young organization, several different issues have shown themselves.  It is expected with a league of this size and diversity that there will always be a problem that seems impossible to solve, a conflict that seems too daunting to deal with.  What is special about this organization is that people step up to these challenges and face them head on, and work hard to find a solution.  Board members ask for input from the other players, whether it’s an official invitation or survey, or just a board member asking another player their opinion about something.  I think some of the best problem solving takes place when watching hockey games, talking about what is happening on the ice, or talking about a particular issue that has come to light.

This league continues to teach me how to work with people and understand different points of view.  Different people bring different opinions, some that I don’t immediately understand, but strive to try. I feel constantly challenged- whether it’s learning more about hockey, developing my game, or learning about the strengths and weaknesses in my own character.  This is the kind of challenge that extends into the rest of life, and this league and its people have continued to teach me about acceptance and perspective, both in my own learning and by their example.

I am a proud member of the MGHA and this is what being a member means to me.