I just started learning how to actually play hockey in the Madison Gay Hockey Association. I’ll chronicle my journey in my Gay Hockey Diary, a semi-regular feature here.
“I play hockey.” You have no idea how cool it feels to finally say that. After six years of watching hockey, falling in love with the sport and seeing what great bodies hockey players have, I can finally say that I play ice hockey.
After I came out of the closet a few months ago, several people reached out to me and told me about the Madison Gay Hockey Association. I read a little bit about it and figured I would maybe sign up…someday.
Then, I was at the airport with some coworkers (I travel for work…a lot), and a gay colleague saw Sidney Crosby on the cover of Sports Illustrated and said, “ooh, hockey!”
“I didn’t know you liked hockey,” I said. “Yeah, I just joined the gay hockey league,” he said. I told him I was thinking about joining, and he proceeded to spend much of our flight delay (we were at O’Hare, of course we were delayed) telling me about how great the MGHA is. So I made the plunge.
Patrick Farabaugh, the MGHA founder, reached out to me shortly after signing up. We had a nice conversation and I quickly learned that he has built the biggest gay hockey league in the country. Seriously, take a minute to read his incredible story and what he’s done for the gay community in Madison.
I’ve skated a few times before, and even played a little pond hockey, but nothing more than throwing pucks at a log. That scrimmage was my first time playing in full gear.
In our scrimmages, we play every position but goaltender. When someone gets tired, he heads to the bench, calls out his position and whoever is next on the bench will take over that position. I’ve followed the game religiously over the past six years, and I’ve covered hockey for various news outlets. So, I feel like I know the game pretty well, and I know what each position is supposed to do. But, like tying a necktie, it’s easy in theory but difficult in practice.
I started out playing left defense. OK, I thought, time to just cover the other team’s right winger. She came up the ice with the puck, so I started skating backward and kept up with her. I’m actually not too bad at skating backward, but when someone is skating forward at you, they’re usually faster. I realized I had to turn around and skate forward to keep up with her.
One small problem: I have no idea how to switch from skating backward to skating forward.
I looked like your everyday Mike Green for how often I let the other team blow past me for a scoring chance. My goalie got a lot of practice when I was playing defense.
I was having a blast rushing up and down the ice when I realized I was about to die.
I called for a change and headed to the bench. I nearly high-sticked my teammates in the face as I successfully completed my first flop over the boards and into the seats. It takes more energy than it should to hop over the boards. I sucked down as much water as I could.
Now I know why hockey players’ bodies are so damn perfect, hockey is an unbelievable workout. I’ve been training for a triathlon, but that’s nothing compared to my first shift on defense.
While I watched the game from the bench and slowly slid back toward the center-ice door, where my next shift awaited, I started talking to the rest of my teammates. I met a fellow Penguins fan. I talked to one guy about how great the Pens were playing against Ottawa that night. I talked to another guy who happens to work for the same company I do, and he and his boyfriend happen to live in the same apartment complex as me.
Then, someone shouted, “right wing!” It took me a while to realize that it was my turn. I bounced over the boards, where I conveniently found myself standing on the right side of center ice. The other team’s left winger didn’t see me come over the boards. He narrowly avoided a collision and I somehow managed to smack the puck away.
My whole bench roared. They were cheering for me as if I had made a great play when it was really just dumb luck. If this was a checking league, I would have been leveled like Jagr in the Olympics. But this is the MGHA; the only checking is accidental when players can’t stop in time. And the stick taps from the benches aren’t for bruising hits, they’re for a new player who just so happened to smack the puck in the neutral zone.
I’m new to life outside the closet, and I’m new to playing hockey…but at that moment, I felt validated.
For every other sport that I’ve played, it was always about beating the other team and getting to the next level while enjoyment and tolerance were placed lower on the list of priorities. Even in gym class, people got mad if they had the un-athletic kid on their team. But there are players in the MGHA that just laced up skates for the first time a few weeks ago. Nobody gets upset when a slower skater is on their team. They’ll play the rush at his speed, pass him the puck and cheer for him when he makes a play.
Finally, I found league that welcomes new players and encourages everyone to be who they really are. And lucky for me, that league just so happens to be for my favorite sport that I’ve been wanting to play for six years.
I woke up the next morning sore as hell, but with a big smile on my face…wishing it was Wednesday again.
A few Wednesdays later…my first goal!
After getting to know both the Madison gay community and the MGHA community a littler better, I’m starting to feel much more comfortable both in life and on the ice.
I’ve made such a diverse array of new friends, including a straight couple who struggles to find a babysitter so they can play hockey and a player who is just starting to do drag shows (If you’re in the area, go see Bianca Lynn!).
And in just a few short weeks, my hockey skills have also noticeably improved. In our latest scrimmage, I wound up playing defense quite a bit. And I don’t think my goalie cringes anymore when I step out on the blue line.
And, it took until the last scrimmage of the summer, but I scored my first goal! Granted, it was just as fluky as the play I described earlier, but it was still exciting.
I was playing center, and the other team’s defender had the puck behind his own net. I figured I would go challenge him as he started carrying it up the ice. He tried to deke around me – well, okay, he successfully faked me out and blew past me – but he forgot one thing: the puck.
The puck sat right in front of the net. I just took a swing, and it slid to the far left side of the net, clanged off the post and rolled in. I realize that it took the other team’s defender playing like Kris Letang in Game 2 against the Bruins for me to score, but it still felt pretty good to send that puck in the net.
Unsurprisingly, my teammates were very happy for me, and even some of my opponents were even excited.
“Great job and congratulations, Tony,” my one friend playing on the other team said. “But you can suck it.” (He meant it as a lighthearted insult, not an innuendo)
Our scrimmages are done for the summer, but I plan on going to some skills clinics to try to work on my game and get better for the season this fall. So stay tuned…
If you have any questions about MGHA or life in general, feel free to email me.