The 2014 Frozen Four marked the second time I attended college hockey’s premier event. However, this was the first time I went since I came out of the closet.
Luckily, I live in a city that’s widely accepting toward gay men, so when fellow hockey fans in Madison find out I’m gay, they don’t care. In fact, the older couple whose season tickets are behind me started asking me about my dating life after they saw the series of failed dates I brought to games this year.
But when I travel to new cities, I’ve learned I need to tread a little more lightly when discussing my personal life with fellow hockey fans at the bar or at tailgates.
The Frozen Four in Philadelphia proved an interesting experience for me. My friends and I were drinking a lot, so I knew I had to be careful that I didn’t rub any Philly faithful the wrong way. Not only am I gay, but I’m a Penguins fan. To the wrong person, that could trigger a double dose of hatred.
The beautiful part of the Frozen Four is that fans of every hockey team attend, even though their team didn’t make it. My friends and I wore our Badgers gear, and we sat in between Boston University and Dartmouth fans. In fact, we played college hockey bingo and my friend got a cover-all before the puck even dropped.
Naturally, that kind of fan diversity leads to a great bar atmosphere before and after the games. Fans often share stories of how many years they’ve been attending the Frozen Four, their favorite cities that have hosted (Providence seems to be a popular choice, by the way), and the conversation naturally includes personal stories.
And when male hockey fans tell personal stories, they often include references to “my wife” or “my girlfriend.” Which leads to the gay man’s conundrum: Do I share my story about my boyfriend, or do I just smile and nod and hide the fact that I’m gay?
We have to deal with this conundrum all the time, but sports fans know it more than most. And I always have to hesitate to reveal who I really am. I hate it (and it reminds me of this great speech), but we all have to deal with it.
This year’s Frozen Four featured Minnesota, Boston College, Union and North Dakota. All those schools brought a slew of fans to Philadelphia. Especially North Dakota.
Oh, North Dakota fans.
I hate to stereotype, so I’ll just share one story about the UND fan that sat behind us during Thursday night’s semifinal between his team and the Gophers.
We’ll call him Fred. Fred didn’t bother showing up for the first game—which turned out to be a great one as Union knocked off Johnny Gaudreau and BC. Of course, Fred was sitting right in the middle of the row, making everyone get up for his frequent trips to the bathroom and concessions.
Fred was with his girlfriend, and he was proud to announce to everyone near him that this was his girlfriend’s first-ever hockey game. I honestly do enjoy when people experience live hockey for the first time, and the Frozen Four is a great place to start. I was hoping to hear her thoughts and questions throughout the game, but Fred wouldn’t let her get a word in.
During the first break in the game, the crews started clearing the ice.
“She likes it when they clean the ice, don’t you, babe?” Fred said.
Those were the types of things sexist Fred kept saying all night long. And I’ve encountered several North Dakota fans like him, including a few that shouted pavlovian homophobic insults at any and all Gophers fans that came into view.
Minnesota and North Dakota are big rivals, and both of them are also rivals with Wisconsin. So the Badgers fan in me didn’t really want either team to win. But after interacting with the North Dakota fans, I threw my allegiance behind the Gophers. Which made this even sweeter:
Even though Minnesota and Wisconsin are rivals on the ice, their fans all have a fairly healthy relationship with each other—maybe because citizens of the bordering states are mostly “Midwest nice.”
I’ve never found a Gophers fan with whom I wasn’t able have a good conversation, and many Gophers fans said the same thing about Badgers fans. Sure, we may give each other some crap, but then we’ll buy each other a beer after the game. (One thing we also agreed on was our mutual dislike of North Dakota fans).
So I figured I’d test the waters with some Gophers fans.
The first night we were in Philly, we were sitting with some random Gophers fans at the bar. One of them was from Madison and we were talking about hockey in Wisconsin’s capitol. They asked if I played and where. I said that yes, I play at Hartmeyer Ice Arena.
He pointed out that Hartmeyer is right by the Oscar Meyer wiener factory.
“What makes it funnier is that I play in the gay league, and we’re right by the wiener factory,” I blurted.
All of them were taken aback for a second, and then they laughed and said, “I didn’t know gay hockey leagues existed.”
That led us down a great path of hilarious hockey jokes filled with gay innuendo. We wound up playing bubble hockey and getting decently drunk. It turned out to be a great night, and I didn’t have to hide who I was.
Before the championship game on Saturday, we decided to post up at the Gophers bar near the arena and watch Penguins-Flyers. I didn’t dare sport any Penguins gear, but I did wear my Badgers hat. We were at a bar that featured female bartenders in ass-less chaps and red panties. When we walked outside to get a drink, there was a group of three college guys sitting down with a perfect backside view of one bartender every time she reached down to grab a beer.
The one guy (we’ll call him Steve) saw my hat and made a comment about the Badgers losing in the first round. We started talking a bit, and we explained how we’re from Pittsburgh and we flew in from Wisconsin. Steve and his friends actually drove to Philly from Minneapolis, and we talked a little bit about the Big Ten Tournament that was held in St. Paul.
“Okay, I like you guys,” Steve said. “You’re nice. Even though you’re Badgers fans, I like you.”
About an hour later, we saw those same guys again, and Steve wound up next to me at the bar. We started chatting again, and he actually admitted that he’s from Madison, but moved to Minneapolis to go to college at Minnesota.
“Oh, you’re the opposite of my boyfriend,” I said. “He’s from Minneapolis but moved to Madison for school.”
Steve stopped for a second, then looked around and shouted, “NO WONDER HE’S SO NICE, HE’S GAY!” then gave me a big hug and bought me a drink.
I guess “all gay men are nice” is a stereotype that I can live with—especially if it gets me free drinks from straight men.
So thanks Gophers fans. Because of your acceptance, I was able to be myself at the Frozen Four and not have to worry about hiding who I really am.
It’s a shame, really, that I even have to consider these things, but I think it says a lot about how far we’ve come that a gay Penguins fan was able to talk about his boyfriend while drinking at a bar outside the Flyers’ arena.
Or maybe it just says a lot about the college hockey world. If hockey fans are the hipsters of the sports world, then college hockey fans are Brooklyn. So I really shouldn’t be surprised that they are, for the most part, very accepting of gay people.
Either way, I had a great time in Philly. And even though Gophers fans were super nice, I still couldn’t find it in me to cheer for them. So I was thrilled to see Union capture the title.
And next year, I probably won’t have to tiptoe around my personal life when talking to other fans, as the 2015 Frozen Four will be in Boston, the home base of marriage equality. If you have the chance, you should most certainly go.