Tony Jovenitti – 2013-2014 Essay

Seven years ago, on a blistery winter day in Pittsburgh, I hopped on a bus with my college roommate and a neighbor to go stand in line outside of an arena shaped like an igloo.

We arrived two hours early, yet we were still near the back of the line. Luckily, when we made it to the box office, there were still tickets remaining. We flashed our student IDs and were given three standing-room only seats for $20 each. The ticket stub said, “Must be 5’5” or taller to see over wall.”

I’m 5’6” (on a good day). I had to peek through the top of the wall and a railing to get a glimpse of the ice. I could barely see the far goal, but for the first time, I got to see an ice hockey game in person. The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Dallas Stars in a rather dull game, but something ignited a spark inside me—and I fell in love.

I threw everything I had into the sport of hockey. I followed the Penguins like only a die-hard could—I watched every game, stood in the cold all day for tickets, and camped out in front of the arena to watch playoff games on a big screen. I even got up at 4 a.m. to get a good spot to watch the Stanley Cup parade in 2009.

In 2010, I surrounded myself even more with sports, as I became a sportswriter for the college newspaper. I also managed to snag an internship with the Penguins during my senior year. In just four short years, I did everything you possibly could as a hockey fan, save for one thing—actually play the game.

Watching hockey made me happy. Writing about hockey gave me validation. Arguing with Philadelphia fans gave me purpose. And all of it masked the biggest issue in my life—one I was too afraid to face.

Basically, my hockey and sports obsession kept me busy enough so I didn’t have to think about the future. But once college ended and I was lucky enough to find a good job, I moved to Madison and was forced to.

I still watched as much hockey as possible, but I was no longer immersed in it as much as I was the year before. The issue that I kept sweeping under the rug kept creeping back out.

You see, living life in the closet is like holding your breath—you’re eventually going to have to exhale. I finally allowed myself to realize what I forced myself to not believe for years. I am gay. But that realization led me down a dark path.

For my first two years in Madison, all I did was sit at home, watch hockey, eat junk food, and occasionally go out with the few friends I had. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very healthy lifestyle—physically or mentally. I gained about 40 pounds and I wasn’t a very happy person. I didn’t see an end in sight.

Then, it all changed so suddenly and magically that I still sometimes wake up and think it’s a dream.

On a mundane Monday in late April, I was procrastinating at work and perusing my Twitter feed. A tweet appeared that linked to a Sports Illustrated article, written by a basketball player I never heard of. His name was Jason Collins, and he wrote a beautiful story announcing that he’s gay. I was struck by his honesty, and I admired the fact that he wanted the world to hear it from him first.

Minutes after reading his story, I opened up a Microsoft Word document and wrote the most important story of my life. Collins made me realize that I wanted to tell my story in my own words and not have the grapevine of a small town spread my truth. I am gay, and it’s about time I start being proud of that.

Hockey helped me through a difficult period in my life, but it also played a part in keeping me in the closet. I guess I wanted to divert any gay suspicions away by showing how much of a “masculine” sports fan I am. “He can’t be gay, he likes hockey” was my foolish reasoning. ButI never even considered playing.

And when I came out, I still didn’t think I could play hockey. I still feared the locker room. And I knew I wouldn’t be very good, since I’ve never played before.

Soon after I came out, though, several people emailed me and told me about the Madison Gay Hockey Association. After hearing how the league encourages new players, I decided to reach out and learn more. Two weeks later, I was on the ice for my first scrimmage. Finally.

But I had only been out of the closet for a few weeks. I still wasn’t quite sure what it meant to be openly gay. I think part of me joined the MGHA for the wrong reason—I wanted to prove to the world that a gay man can be masculine just like straight men.

Now that the world knew I was gay, I wanted to try hard to prove that I wasn’t any different, that I’m just like everyone else.

Thankfully, the MGHA taught me a valuable lesson. I am different. It’s time to stop trying to prove myself to people, and it’s time to stop trying to prove stereotypes wrong.

That’s not what gay hockey is about. Gay hockey isn’t about proving that we can do the same things that straight people can do. We all already know that. Gay hockey is about sharing my love of the game with other people who were discouraged from lacing up skates their whole lives. Gay hockey is about simply having fun.

Now, I don’t play hockey to prove that I’m just like everyone else. I play gay hockey to prove that I’m different. We are different. The MGHA is different. We play hockey because it’s fun. We play hockey to make friends and learn from each other.

Gay hockey has helped me find my place in Madison—a place I now consider home.

I lived in a small town in Pennsylvania for 18 years. I lived in Pittsburgh for four years. I’ve only lived in Madison for three years.

But Madison is home, and my MGHA family is a big reason why.