I think now is a great time to share a great story, to show us a brighter side to hockey we’ve been sorely lacking.
I can’t recall exactly when or exactly how, but I met my friend “Jason” some time ago on Twitter. He was a college hockey player then, and we would chat off and on about various things: sports, TV (mainly Glee), music… Gradually I found out more about him, and we started talking about his future.
I won’t steal his thunder, as his story is a great one. He did ask that for the time being we protect his identity, but in the future Jason may be more forthcoming. I think it’s likely we’ll be hearing more from and about him in the future.
Hockey, dedication and YCP. Enjoy.
OK. Sorry for taking so long to reply, these past couple of weeks have been a big whirlwind. Moving to a new city and jumping onto a new team 5 weeks into the season is kinda crazy. So is finding long distance moving companies that’ll come all the way here, but I can rant forever about this. Anyway, I am finally making this happen. I just thought that I’d pretty much go all out and put everything out there, then you can pick and choose what you like from it and stuff. And if there’s anything else you’d like to ask, don’t hesitate to drop me a line and I’ll answer any other questions no problem. I’m totally an open book. So here we go.
I grew up a California kid in Poway, a suburb of San Diego. I started playing baseball when I was 4 (and I was damn good at it if I say so myself). When I was 6, my neighbor down the street was looking for someone to play in the town roller hockey league with him, so that the parents could find someone to carpool with. I honestly don’t remember knowing anything about the sport at the time, and I don’t think I had ever seen it played before, either live or on TV.
When my dad asked if I wanted to play, I think I was just too excited to get back to playing Pokemon on my Gameboy, so I just said yes. Since the sport was still pretty unpopular in San Diego, the roller rink only had two age groups: 18-and-under and 12-and-under. So, as a 6-year-old playing my first hockey season in a league full of pre-teens, I was just awful. By far the worst player in the league. And despite the fact that I was so awful, I just absolutely loved the game. Loved it so much.
I don’t know what it was about playing hockey, but every time I stepped out there, I was just having the time of my life. I started to practice in the garage with my dad all the time, and by the time I was 8, he thought I should give ice hockey a try. It was difficult to learn how to ice skate, but I finally got the hang of it and eventually became the best mite player in all of San Diego. Quite the achievement, I know.
I moved to Portland, OR when I was 9, and played my first years of travel hockey. I played 2 years of Squirts for the Portland Junior Hawks (named after the WHL team). Although we were a terrible team (I think we started one season 0-23…… Yea……) I managed to grow and develop into a very good hockey player because of one person- Bobby Freeland.
Bobby was a very respected coach in the Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver areas. He had played for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, and had a short professional career after that. He knew the game like nobody else I have ever met in my life. He normally coached the Jr. Hawks’ Midget AAA team every year, but after my parents and I got to know him throughout my first year in Portland, he decided that he wanted to take me under his wing and coach my Squirt team. That was the year where I really took a big step forward in my development. He taught me things when I was 10 that other coaches teach their players in midget hockey. He had just seen his first former player (Paul Gaustad) get drafted by the Buffalo Sabres, and he would always tell me that he wanted me to be the next one he sent off to the professional ranks.
Well, when my family moved back to Southern California the following year, I kept in constant contact with Coach Bobby. He would always check up on my games, and make sure that I was always working hard. But after my 3rd and final year of playing bantams for the Ventura Mariners, I got word that Coach Bobby had passed away suddenly. I was devastated. This was not only my coach, but a dear family friend. I really struggled with going to the rink for some time after that, because every time I went to practice or a game, I was reminded of him.
The next year was my first year of Midget hockey. I was 15, and decided that I could no longer play AA hockey if I wanted to eventually play in college. So, I tried out for the California Wave Midget AAA team, and became the only new addition the team made from the previous season. That year was truly an eye-opening experience, because I learned about Major Junior hockey and played against kids from all over the country for the first time.
This season served as the second major step forward I took in my game. This team was absolutely loaded. Looking back on that roster, we had Jonathon Blum (Nashville Predators), Colin Long (Phoenix Coyotes), Shane Harper (Philadelphia Flyers), CJ Stretch (Houston Aeros), and Kyle McMahon (Michigan State) to name a few of the top talents on the squad. We played tournaments throughout the year in Prince Albert, Toronto, Dallas, and finally, the National Championships in Chicago. We ended up battling hard and losing in overtime in the national championship game to the Mid-Fairfield Blues, who were a team full of kids from New England prep schools, led by Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis Blues) and Max Pacioretty (Montreal Canadiens). That was when I decided I wanted to go to prep school in New England in order to pursue my dream of playing college hockey.
When I got into an elite prep school, I had no idea that it was one of the world’s most prestigious in the country since I had never heard of it before I applied for admission under my dad’s demands. So when I arrived on campus, I got my first taste of something other than Southern California – and I LOVED it. I loved everything about the area, the people, and the tough, physical hockey. My time there was when I first began to think differently about every aspect of my life. I had always had an idea that I liked dudes, but I honestly just never really acted on it because I was always just focused on hockey, baseball, and school. I never actually thought that I could be “gay,” because I just figured it was a phase I would grow out of.
Well, living away from home when you’re 15 can make you start to look at that differently. The 3 years I spent at this school was the time in my life where I realized that it was OK to be gay, and that there are other people out there who are gay, not just me. I was still terrified to tell anyone about it or to have any teammates find out, because I always figured that they would handle it very differently from the common non-athlete. So I kept it inside, and just focused on enjoying my time there with my amazing friends (who are still some of my closest friends on Earth to this day).
I’m just going to come out and say it – I was severely disappointed with my college choice. I was so bummed that I did not receive a Division I offer, and had to “settle” for playing Division III for one of the finest liberal arts schools in the country. So my first two years there were quite miserable, actually. I was still closeted, and had no intention of changing that any time soon, and I never felt like I could really bond with my teammates because I was always trying to hide from them. I was about 20 pounds overweight, and I was just very unhappy. I remember always saying to myself, “just get through college, and then you can be free to live the life you want.” Those are not the words of a typical college kid. I was miserable.
But towards the end of sophomore year, I began to feel much happier, and much of that credit should go to the guy I started dating in early 2010 (my first and only relationship to this day). My boyfriend had been out to his family for several years at the time we met. When we started dating, I thought there was no way this guy would ever get me to come out to my family and friends, and I was just enjoying spending time with him. Well, next thing you know, he had given me the confidence to finally come out to my family in the summer of 2010. And because of the positive reaction I received from my family, that gave me the confidence to accept who I was while I was away at college. I actually did not plan on coming out to my teammates and friends at school, it just…happened.
It was a Saturday afternoon in September, one week before my 21st birthday. My friends and I had bought a keg and were having a blast outside on the green, playing games and enjoying the awesome weather. Well, after a few hours, and a few brews, four of my teammates came up to me and just flat out told me that they knew I was gay, and that they didn’t care one bit. I don’t know if it was because of the hours of drinking games, or the new found confidence I had from coming out to my family, or a combination of both, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t even try to argue with them. I just said, “Yup, you got me.” My friends immediately wrapped me up in a big bear hug, and they have been my four closest friends on earth ever since.
That day changed everything about my college experience. After being miserable for the first 2 years of college, I enjoyed every second of my last two years there, and I attribute just about all of that to having an amazing circle friends and teammates. I am so lucky to have been surrounded by such amazing people. My grades came up, I was able to get myself in the best shape of my life (down from 5’10” and 227 lbs. to a lean, mean 203 lbs) and my play on the ice got much better because I was back to having fun whenever I was out on the ice.
Because I was playing at a much higher level, I learned that I might have an opportunity to continue my playing career into the professional ranks. I didn’t think much about it, because I never thought I could have that opportunity. Seeing no gay players in the NHL or other professional leagues was very difficult, and swayed me towards just moving on and joining my buddies a local beer league. But then the You Can Play project came along. Hearing that Brian Burke – who ESPN’s John Buccigross once described as having “rough and tough qualities” – told his son just-out son Brendan “We love you, this won’t change a thing,” and all those NHL stars who publicly support YCP…well, that’s the reason why I felt that I could play professionally as a gay player.
After researching and writing one of my final papers in college on the YCP, I made the decision that I wanted to be a professional hockey player. So here I am, the newest member of a European Division 1 team. I have already played in 8 games, and recorded my first points, hits, and even hat trick. My teammates here do not yet know of my sexual orientation, and I believe that it is really none of their business. The lifestyle of the professional game is much different than that of college. In college, everyone goes to class together, practices together, eats together, and goes out at night together. Here, pretty much the only times I see my teammates are at practices, games, and when we all go out to the bars and discotheques at night – which is extremely rare, of course, because we are professional athletes and are supposed to keep our bodies in tip-top shape
Jason’s story ends there – for the moment. But it’s clear to us at PuckBuddys that it’s really just beginning. Jason Can Play.
If you have any questions, please tweet Andrew, who will do his best to get them to Jason.
Coach Freeland would be very proud. – Craig and Doug