Category: 22-23 Essays

Maggie Stack – What Gay Hockey Means to Me – 2023 Essay

“You play hockey?”

As an overweight 42-year-old mother of two, I often get this question when I talk about my hobbies. The look of surprise then fades, and the next thing most people say is “That’s awesome!”

Yeah. It is.

So how did I get here? And (given the title) what does it mean to me? Let’s get into it!

My little brother played hockey when we were growing up in Minnesota.  I was busy with my own things at the time, like band and speech team and softball and theatre, so I left him to it and never imagined myself as a hockey player.

Fast-forward 20 or so years, and one day I got the call from my mom that my brother, a Green Beret, had been killed in action in Afghanistan.

My world shattered. Our parents, my sister, everyone who knew him: All of our worlds shattered. And I struggled to pick up the pieces for a long, long time. I was hospitalized for suicidal ideation, and it served as a wakeup call that got me into therapy, where I learned to feel my feelings no matter how difficult they were.

Eventually (putting the “G” in “MGHA”), I realized that some of those feelings were super gay. And that’s how I finally figured out my sexual orientation at age 37: by doing the serious self-examination that helps people grow after a tragedy. My therapist once called it Adam’s final gift to me.

This self-discovery meant that I had to end a 15-year marriage to someone I loved. We had to tell our kids that we were getting a divorce, and to this day it’s one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had. It was an incredibly painful time in my life, but as is often the case, it was also one of the periods when I grew the most as a human and started to connect with my own story.

I learned to survive in a world without Adam, and I slowly learned more about who I was. Over the years, I had let myself fall into the trap that many parents do, where I was only doing things for other people and had nothing to call my own. I’d drive my kids around to their activities and wish I had something that was just mine. At the time, that wish felt selfish, but now I can see that it was probably healthy. In any case, it put me in a place where, when my friend Nick encouraged me to join the MGHA, I was ready to say yes.

It wasn’t long into my first season with the MGHA that I came to realize what a uniquely supportive community it is. My mentor Ingrid and my captains Trisha and Erik all helped set that tone, and so did pretty much everyone I came into contact with in the league. I learned at my own pace (fittingly glacial) and my then-girlfriend (now wife) told me that my skills improved drastically from the beginning of the season to the end.

My first year was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I focused on learning something new each game, even something small like climbing over the boards, so that I could celebrate those small wins. I was able to connect with my team, the league at large, and once again – myself. I loved having something to call my own. I loved talking about hockey and the MGHA to anyone who would listen, and I still love it to this day.

Once I forged those connections and realized that these were my people, I took advantage of the many opportunities to get more involved with the league. I applied for membership and volunteered to join the recruiting committee. Then I received an email asking if I wanted to be a captain. Of course I instantly wrote back saying it must be a mistake – me, a captain? I loved hockey, but I was still objectively terrible at it!

Eventually, I decided to jump in and see how I could help the league as a captain. I joined the Orange Crush team and was paired with Rob, who is an excellent hockey player and coach. I still didn’t have much in the way of technical skills, but the MGHA is so special in how it allows people to flourish and find their own unique style. I helped out with moral support, communication, keeping good vibes going in the locker room, and anything else I could contribute. It enabled me to connect in new ways with my own talents, as well as with people like Rob who balanced me out.

Our team didn’t win many games, but you would never know it if you’d come into our locker room after a loss – I’ve never been part of a team with that much of an upbeat attitude. It was a fantastic season: Everyone grew in terms of hockey knowledge, we were truly able to connect as a team, and it helped me learn even more about who I am as a person and a leader. To this day, when I look at that captain’s C on my jersey, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride.

The moral of the story is: If you want to start playing hockey at age 40, you can! If you want to be a captain even though you can’t skate backwards or do a perfect hockey stop, you can! Again, there are so many opportunities to get involved with the league.

In the end, gay hockey, for me, is a way to connect with my brother who’s no longer with us. It’s a way for me to connect with the parts of myself that I kept hidden for so long. And it’s a way to connect with amazing people who all promote the MGHA Way. It’s a beautiful rainbow connection that makes the MGHA an important part of my life and the lives of so many others.

“You play hockey?”

Hell yeah I do.

Austin “Cas” Hutchison – What Gay Hockey Means to Me – 2023 Essay

Canada is big on hockey. From the age of 3, I was a lot like many other kids, lacing up skates I’d quickly outgrow and learning how to balance on ice. A stick soon gets put in your hands, and before you know it, you’re on a team with a bunch of other kids who hardly know how to avoid each other, never mind make a play with the puck.

You learn to skate backwards. You learn to crossover. You learn how to pass, shoot, find space. You learn a lot about the sport growing up in its birth place, but there was a distinct lack of focus through my years on learning what it means to be accepted in a community. Hockey as a culture demands much of its players, both physically and mentally. At all levels, while a coach asked you loudly to skate harder, they also demanded of you silently to sit down, shut up, and fall in line.

It got worse as I got older. The longer you play, the deeper culture gets ingrained. Inside the rink without a doubt, but outside of it too. You see teammates at school, in town, and eventually, for a 15 year old Cas (who wasn’t even going by Cas yet), you realize you’re trying to make your way through self-discovery while playing in a sport that wants nothing to do with you. The hazing culture as a teenager wasn’t anything I wanted to be a part of, certainly not when I was struggling with my own emotions off the ice in relation to being queer and trying to hide everything from a sporting world that would absolutely not have my back if they found out.

How was I sure of that?

I avoided the hazing. The coach himself, a middle aged man and father of one of the older players, made sure that in a practice I was the center point of abuse and violent drills as punishment.

Shut up and fall in line. That’s all it was. I loved the sport, but the sport didn’t really love me. So I left. I endured that year and ended my career at 16, not willing to be abused and be hidden for 2 more years. It really ate at me as an athlete, not having that sporting outlet. However, it let me breathe a little as the years went by. Sacrifice one thing to benefit elsewhere, that’s how I saw it. If I needed to drop the sport I loved to mentally be alright, that was okay. I attended some drop-in games over the years, I didn’t really talk. I moved to another part of Canada, the locker rooms had the same dread of heteronormative culture inside of them. So I showed up to pick-up, I grimaced at the jokes every day about women players and gay players, and I never spoke. Wasn’t worth it. I got to be on the ice again, and that was that.

Across the continent, my best friend and then MGHA player Soup was talking to me every day. I shared with him experiences, my worries, and in return he shared details about the league he was in. It sounded crazy, everything from the outward acceptance to the sheer size of the league. Maybe I could find something like that nearby.

Better than that, I found myself through a period of strife and discovery moving to city of Madison, and best friend became my partner. My partner, in the 2022 Classic, became a teammate. I got to see what it was like for the first time to enter dressing rooms where the air wasn’t choking the breath out of me for being queer, but in fact welcomed who I was.

I still didn’t talk a lot. I said hellos, and I listened. I nodded, I got a feel for how everyone was, and we played hockey. It was my first organized experience in a decade, then a 25 year old playing for the first time on a real team since I was a troubled teenager.

It was one of the best experiences of my life.

The summer went by, and I was signed up ASAP for the 22-23 season. Nervous as hell, no real clue what to expect, but I had a goal to become more comfortable, play well, and let myself relax and enjoy a new environment that was unlike what I had growing up. Game by game, little by little, I talked a bit more, made a few more jokes, opted to try and help out where I could. My captains (shout out to Leif and Maddy!!) were incredibly welcoming, and were an amazing example of people who could make anyone feel like they belonged on and off the ice.

They, and everyone in this league, helped change the scope of what I came to expect from a locker room and of hockey itself. They gave me the confidence to start using pride tape, to put stickers on my helmet to display pride at any ice surface, and start to advocate for that same acceptance elsewhere. There’s honestly a sore gap in my heart as I type this with the season over, waiting for the next to start. I can’t wait for the 2023 Classic, and social meetups, and more events.

On top of that, I feel incredibly honored that I was asked to be a captain for a tournament team this year. I don’t think very highly of myself a lot of the time, and I think that’s an unfortunately shared experience of a lot of people within the queer spectrum. It’s laid on us by a lot of hate and discomfort over our lives, and communities like the MGHA are important to undo that.

Being given a chance to be a leader and help other people have the same experiences I did?

Couldn’t say yes fast enough.

This league helped change my life, and as long as I’m nearby, I’ll be playing in it and doing what I can to help it grow.

Canada is big on hockey, but the MGHA is big on its players. The hockey world needs this sort of focus if it’s going to change, and I don’t think there’s a better example out there of how to do it than this league.

Thank you everyone who I played with, and against. Thank you everyone who helps run the league, and every volunteer. Thank you Soup. You all do much more than you know.

Matthew Greene – What Gay Hockey Means to Me – 2023 Essay

Deep breath in.

You’ve got this. All eyes on you. You’ve got this.

Shifting my weight, I looked down at my new cleats, bobbing my head to psych myself up. Navy blue socks covered my shin guards, a soccer ball between my feet.

Childhood me before a soccer game.

You’ve got this.

The boy ahead of me launched forward at the sound of the whistle.

You’re up next.

Behind me, I felt the sun on my neck, heating the number 12 emblazoned on my jersey’s back. A light breeze blew across the field, still soggy from melting snow. It was springtime in Rhode Island. I shifted my weight again, moving the ball to the outside of my foot.

The whistle blew.

Let’s do this! Use the outside of your cleat to push the ball out to the left, gather some speed, move the ball back to the right, take aim, and shoot!

I watched the ball leave my laces, racing towards the lower left corner of the goal. The goalie moved, but the ball was just out of reach. Relief flooded my body.

No way! I did it! I actually did it!

I was six years old, playing on my hometown’s boys’ travel soccer team. For the first time, I was on my own; my older sisters were no longer my teammates and protectors. And I’d done it. Here, at our first practice, during the very first drill, with all eyes on me, I’d scored a goal. Try as I might, I couldn’t stifle a grin and the feeling of pride in myself. I turned and started to jog to the back of the line, passing the coach.

“Oh great, we’ve got a Baryshnikov on the team,” he said, rolling his eyes as I went past.

That’s a weird word.

Practice continued with passing drills, throw-in lessons, and footwork training, darting and dodging through a course crafted by cones. With each minute my confidence grew. I might not be so bad at this soccer thing.

“Hey, Twinkle Toes, maybe you should try running like a boy!” I turned around, not sure what was happening, only to see the coach slapping his assistant on the shoulder, doubled over in fits of laughter. I looked to my left, to my right, wondering what was so funny.

“Yeah, you! Run like a boy, Greene!” shouted the coach, mockingly pronouncing the otherwise silent e at the end of my name.
I froze.

They’re talking to you. They’re laughing at you. What did you do wrong?

Time crawled as the other boys turned in slow motion, looking at me and laughing. Sure, some likely didn’t know why they were laughing, just that everybody else was, so they should, too.

“Stop running like a pansy!” the coach shouted at me, shaking his head.

As the years passed, I began to withdraw into myself, building an internal wall for self-preservation. Not once did I participate in any kind of athletic activity without hearing those words echo in my mind. I became concerned with how I stood, how I walked, how I ran, furtively studying those around me to try and understand what I was doing wrong. Season after season, year after year, I tried out for soccer, basketball, tennis, and volleyball, always with the same unsuccessful result — and the same comments, the same eyerolls.

Several years later, I was home alone on a fall afternoon while my sisters were off at soccer practice. I sat down at my family’s desktop computer, initiating the long, loud sequence of dialing into the internet. I was thirteen and the internet at home was still new and exciting, a whole world at your fingertips. I was discovering a new set of skills and interests and, opening the AOL browser, I pecked at the keys one by one, typing in C-Y-R-I-L-L-I-C. As the page loaded in increments, I sat there entranced, looking at the familiar yet odd letters, quietly pronouncing them: А а, Б б, В в, Г г, and so on. I’d become enthralled by languages and had begun spending my time collecting dictionaries, reading grammar books, and teaching myself to unlock the mysteries of new alphabets, first Greek and then Cyrillic. Russian history fascinated me and I’d spend hours turning the pages of books I couldn’t read, wondering what secrets were hidden among the shapes on the page and imagining how my life might be different if those were my letters, my language, my world. With the alphabet on the screen as my guide, I turned to a list of cognates in the textbook lying open in front of me. Slowly, I practiced sounding out each word — парк, театр, балет — eventually moving to full sentences with authentic Russian names. I froze: Михаил Барышников артист балета.

There before me stood the word that had rattled around inside my head for years, that coach’s voice filling my mind every time I kicked a soccer ball, dribbled a basketball, held a tennis racquet. One of the unanswered questions of my childhood was suddenly addressed: Mikhail Baryshnikov is a ballet dancer.

Though the Russian original referred to Baryshnikov more broadly as a ballet artist, the weight of the words “ballet dancer” crashed over me as I recognized the disdain behind the coach’s comments, a new layer added to what I’d already grasped so many years before. Nowadays there’s a double sting to it, for despite knowing that ballet dancers are among not only the strongest and most impressive athletes but also the most competitive, the pejorative connotation remains embedded in my mind, the taunts of my coaches and teammates still haunting, causing a conflict between logic and hurt.

That same refrain played in my head at the height of summer 2022 while hiking with my partner, Sean Hubbard, in the north of Wisconsin. As we wandered among waterfalls with temperatures climbing towards the triple digits, he asked me the most unexpected question: are you interested in playing hockey with me this year? For the past several winters, we’d spent time out on the Tenney Lagoon with him, an experienced skater and hockey player, helping me learn to skate properly, showing me how to receive a pass, and picking me back up after hitting the ice yet another time.

Hockey had interested me since childhood, with Friday nights often spent an hour from home at Schneider Arena on the campus of Providence College, my father’s alma mater, cheering on the team. It was also a sport, though, that was financially out of reach, compounded by a lack of nearby rinks. Now Sean was presenting me with the opportunity to learn and play with other beginners, in a league created by and for queer people. And still, I paused.

In my head, that pause was filled with the sound of children laughing, of being called Baryshnikov, Twinkle Toes, pansy, and more. Memories flashed through my mind of pushing myself at tryouts season after season, but never seeing my name on the final roster; of jogging on a treadmill while scanning the room through my peripherals to make sure no one was watching; of registering as a free agent for volleyball as an adult, but never being a part of a team. Would this be just one more experience to add to my rolodex of embarrassment?

I trusted Sean, though, and that night submitted my application to the Madison Gay Hockey Association. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that would come to be a defining moment. A few weeks later, I found myself sitting in the locker room with a host of other beginners being led through the different stages of dressing for hockey. As I pulled the laces on my skates tight, feeling the pads shift around me, nerves began to set in. Forcing the helmet down onto my head, I slid on my gloves, grabbed my stick, and wobbled towards the ice. My nerves increased and the same tired refrain set in in my mind, the jabs and taunts replaying again and again.

Trying to push those voices aside, a new one filled my ears, bellowing “Circle up!” In the center of the ice stood Mark Nessel, ready to lead our first training session. Patiently awaiting our arrival around him as we slipped, skidded, and fumbled across the ice, our surrogate coach for the evening looked at each of us individually, acknowledging our place alongside him. With a broad smile, he nodded in a slight bow. “Before we get underway, I want each of you to know how proud I am of you. Hockey is difficult. Hockey is fast. Coming out onto the ice at any age takes courage, and I admire each of you for your willingness to try something new as adults. Do your best. Have fun.”

In that moment, the wall within me wobbled: here before me stood a cisgender, heterosexual, masculine man about to lead an athletic training session and rather than chastise, taunt, or ignore me, he instead offered praise and encouragement. His next words shook that wall a bit more: “Now everybody, fall down!” We looked at each other, slightly confused, and again Mark cried, “I mean it! Let’s all fall down!” And we did. One by one, we all ended up on the ice, lying, kneeling, sitting, and Mark joined us, along with Amanda Thornton. Together, they demonstrated how to stand back up in such a way as to control your center of gravity and maintain your balance. “Now you know,” Mark said, looking at each of us individually again, “that it’s ok to hit the ice. And you also know that you have the skills, the knowledge, and the strength to get back up.” The wall started to teeter.

Stefa and me at a Blue Screen of Death Practice.

In the weeks and months that followed, the voices that had haunted me for so long diminished, replaced instead by the cheers of my teammates — and of the teams we faced. Together we celebrated our victories, with both teams erupting in cheers and whoops for every goal. Keeping score came to feel more like a formality than a necessity. On the ice, I found myself all too often locked in a dance with another team’s player as we held onto each other, trying to remain upright, ultimately descending into fits of laughter, the puck long forgotten. As my teammates came off the ice, we tapped gloves, congratulated each other on a great shift, and complimented strong skating and well-executed plays. At the start of the season, I’d chosen defense as my preferred position, the same I had played in soccer. From the first time we took the ice together, my fellow lines player Stefa Cartoni Casamitjana and I felt instantly connected, as if bound together by an invisible cord, one which pulled us together along the ice, thinking as one to protect our goalie, Laur Rivera.

Each week, another brick in my internal wall came down. For the first time, I found myself in an athletic environment that was supportive, queer, and truly and definitively centered around joy. Still, a part of me secretly hoped to score a goal by the end of the season, though chances of that seemed unlikely as a defender. Instead, I channeled my energy into improving as a skater and player and sharing what I’d figured out with those around me. In the penultimate week of play, Christy Churchill stepped in as a sub for our team, skating out for the first time! They joined us on the defensive line and it was an absolute joy to play with them and feel a sense of accomplishment as the season came to a close that I was able to share some of my own knowledge and insights. Directly following that game, I in turn subbed for my first time, joining Orange Crush, where I found myself playing left wing, my first time on offense. As the starting line took to the ice for face-off, I noticed the stands were surprisingly full, the largest crowd I’d ever seen at one of our hockey games.

After a few shift changes, I began to get my legs under me and my wits about me.

Don’t go too far back, you’re not on defense. Stay in position. Stay out here.

Our defense was locked in battle to protect the goalie from a yellow powerplay, working to clear the puck out of the zone.

There’s a gap over there where you’ll be open. That’s where you want to be.

The defensive line was successful and suddenly the puck was sliding towards me. Without thinking, I shifted my weight to rotate on my skates and leaned back onto my left skate. My stick cradled the puck and I launched forward off my left skate, gliding with my right.

It’s open ice now, nobody’s around!

I looked back over my shoulder — one on, but still plenty of space. The goalie’s eyes were locked on the puck, waiting for my move.

Use the blade to move the puck out a bit. Shift your weight. The lower left corner is open. Shoot!

Relief flooded my body. I’d done it, I’d actually done it. The stands erupted in cheers, but I could barely hear them — the goalie had just fished the puck out of the net and turned to look at me. We burst out laughing and I skated forward into Christy’s arms. Where minutes before we had been teammates, now we found ourselves opposing each other, but that meant nothing. As we hugged, I shouted, “I’m sorry, friend!” and they shouted, “Great shot, friend!”

The puck from my first MGHA goal.

Turning to skate back to my bench and finally hearing the cheers of my team and the spectators, I knew with that one shot, I’d destroyed the wall within me once and for all. I might not be so bad at this hockey thing.

I sat down on the bench, grinning.

Deep breath out.

Blue Screen of Death after playing in the L1 Championship.