Each year for the last 8 years, the Madison Gay Hockey Association has invited its players at the end of the season to write an essay about the impact being a part of the association has had on their identity and their relationship to both sports and the LGBTQ community. As the league founder these essays always move me to tears. But I am also taken by the diversity of the experience from player to player and the common themes that all of them seem to share. This past season the league had a record 11 players come forward to write a narrative. Although the two below especially stood out to league leadership, each essay written shined a light on something unique to its author. If you like Kit’s and Daniel’s essays, I hope you will consider reading the others in-full on the league’s website. –Patrick Farabaugh
Kit Hamada: The Rookie
I’ve never been any good at sports. Before joining the MGHA, the last time I tried to play a team sport was in high school gym class, where it seemed like everyone else instinctively knew how to play the game and I was left in the dark. If someone happened to pass to me, my options were to flail wildly or duck and hope the ball wouldn’t hit me. My teammates generally avoided passing to me after the first few times. I tried my best to look like I was trying hard, but I had already learned the one thing that gym class had to teach me: I just wasn’t cut out for sports.
Fast forward ten years. In the summer of 2012, I moved from New Mexico to Madison to start a new job. Madison was an entirely new city for me, and I hardly knew anyone, so I was determined to get involved with something where I could make new friends.
Around the same time, my friend Lexi had dragged me into watching hockey with her. I was living in Canada in 2010, so of course I had to watch Olympics hockey, which was probably my first inkling of interest in the sport. But I didn’t have the time or attention span to keep up with NHL hockey…or so I thought, until I found myself actively seeking out games and watching with bated breath, even though I didn’t understand half of what was going on. I thought maybe if I watched for long enough, a lightbulb would go on in my head and all of the whistles and plays would suddenly make sense to me. When that didn’t happen, I started entertaining the thought of learning how to play hockey because then at least I’d get an explanation of the rules. If that were my goal, I decided, then it’d be okay if I were terrible at it.
I wasn’t thinking about hockey when I decided to move to Madison, but I quickly realized that I couldn’t be living in a better place for it. On a whim, I googled “Madison hockey” and the website for the Madison Gay Hockey Association came up as one of the top results. It sounded perfect—too good to be true.
The problem was, I was nervous enough about the idea of hockey and trying something new. And the thought of joining the Gay Hockey Association felt terrifying for entirely different reasons.
I’ve never been a part of a gay community before. I’ve never really felt like I fit into the communities I have been a part of, but rather like someone lurking around the outskirts, unsure of my welcome. That’s how I was used to living my life. Growing up, the few gay role models I had were teachers involved in the GSA, whom I observed from afar. I was too intimidated to talk to people I knew were gay and too scared to talk about being gay. Gay people were brash and unafraid. They wore rainbows on their backpacks and wrists and didn’t care what other people thought. They talked about girls they thought were cute—classmates, actors, coffee shop baristas—in places where anyone could overhear, whereas by the time I graduated college, I could count the number of people I’d come out to on one hand.
Heart hammering, I filled out the new player form and submitted it anyway. This is how I found myself a month later, armed with a bag full of hockey gear and a stick I had no idea how to use, having one of the weirdest thoughts possible as I walked into the locker room: what if I’m not gay enough? All of the returning players looked so cool, and clearly knew each other. I couldn’t imagine myself fitting in. And even the other newbies seemed at ease with both each other and themselves.
I don’t remember much from that first practice anymore, but a few moments still stand out vividly. Watching Ames hockey stop inches away from the boards like it was easy, and despairing over ever being able to do that. Me falling over backwards every time we would stop and gather to listen to the coaches because I was used to figure skates and kept forgetting that in hockey skates you couldn’t lean back as far. A kid with the biggest smile on his face, who skated fast even though he looked like he barely knew where his feet were and crashed into the boards at both ends. I got up the courage to smile back at him, and he introduced himself as Chue.
I was about as awful at hockey as I expected. I could skate around okay, but I couldn’t stop at all. I had no idea what to do with my stick. And I couldn’t carry the puck for even a second unless I slowed down to a snail’s pace. None of that mattered though, because no one was yelling at me for not doing things right. The complete opposite, actually—all I ever heard was constant encouragement.
Our second practice was a week later, on my 24th birthday. Even though no one knew it was my birthday, I remember thinking that learning how to play hockey was the best possible gift.
From then on, I was hooked. It didn’t seem to matter that I was awkward and didn’t know what to say to anyone off the ice because we were all awkward on the ice, and no one cared. We came from vastly different backgrounds and experiences, and we came to the MGHA for a variety of reasons, but now that we were here, we were in this together. As we learned how to play hockey the MGHA way, I made more friends than I ever expected. Just being surrounded by people who accepted me for who I am made some vital part of me that I didn’t even realize was constantly on guard relax.
I look up to every single person in this league. For being brave enough to play hockey, for being brave enough to try, for not giving up, for having fun, for falling down and laughing about it. For loving hockey enough to dedicate countless hours to it. For leading by example, in both hockey and life. For showing up to play, week in and week out, as much as you can. For being amazing. For being yourselves.
This is what gay hockey means to me.
It means that even when I could barely keep track of the puck, much less the rest of the game, I never once felt like my teammates resented me or wished they could have a better player in my place. They had more confidence in me than I had in myself. It took a while for it to truly sink in that no one was going to be mad at me whenever I went offside or turned over the puck or failed to catch an easy pass. But once it did, I stopped worrying about making mistakes and started trying to prove myself wrong about not being good at sports.
It means that the amazing level of support I felt from my team exists throughout the entire league. We help each other up when we fall down, and we celebrate each others’ achievements like they’re our own. We show our support and caring for each other in so many ways, both on the ice and off, that listing all of the moments I can think of would be overwhelming. I know many people have their own stories to tell—personally, the one that blew me away the most was when a group of us played in a pond hockey tournament this year. Despite the well-below-freezing temperatures, our friends showed up at 8 a.m. to cheer us on (with a cowbell!).
It means that I am not only a part of a community—a hockey community and a gay community—but I’ve found myself right in the middle of it. Even a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me I would be one of the people in charge of planning championship night. I’m not that good at putting myself out there, and I never expected that I could be a part of something so big and feel like I truly belong, but you guys drew me in and showed me what it feels like to be surrounded by wholehearted acceptance. Because of this league, I am proud to be a gay hockey player.
Gay hockey means challenging yourself to do things you’ve never done before. It’s about overcoming things that you think are impossible. It’s about having the courage to even try.
Before I joined the MGHA, I could skate well enough to get around the rink without falling but not much more. I couldn’t skate particularly fast, but it didn’t matter—back then, skating with my arms spread wide felt like flying.
Two years and 287 hours of ice time later, I can feel my skate blades dig into the ice with each stride. I don’t feel like I’m about to launch myself into flight. Instead, I feel like I’m landing. Like I’ve finally found a place for myself. Like I have something in my life that’s worth holding on to. Like I’m coming home. n
Daniel Burkhardt: Reconnecting to His Inner Athlete
I started playing hockey when I was in fourth grade. My parents viewed it as a healthy social activity to gain independence and self-confidence. As I began to develop my skills on the ice, I was becoming more and more aware of my identity off the ice. Entering my teen years, that confidence and independence began to be replaced with anxiety and intimidation. I began to smell more from fear than gear—a scent that is hard enough to wash off as it is.
I was hiding and realized that my timidity was starting to be noticed. And, of course, playing hockey at a private Roman Catholic high school was…interesting to say the least. Dealing with group showers where older students singled you out—pinned you against the wall naked in the shower—because you were new to the team and already enough of an outcast made for a very convincing reason to put the pads back in the closet and hope to stay there myself as well.
So this is what it’s like to not be hetero and to play sports…no thanks. I like the game, not the players. It became ingrained into a sport that I grew up playing, that I had in common with many of my close friends and cousins. A stereotype founded on experience had been established: the ice was too thin to skate if you don’t fit the mold.
Years later, as a sophomore in college, I created a new stereotype that was not founded on experience—when I first saw advertisements for MGHA in fall of 2007. Wow, a bunch of other gays on the ice. That’s gotta be…“fabulous! pschh”…maybe we’d break into synchronized figure-skating routines midway through and have matching leotards.
I laughed it off, knowing I couldn’t go back to the game I grew up with, and that MGHA probably wouldn’t compare; that I’d just be associating myself with a bunch of flamboyant queens at a time when I was still in the closet, trying to avoid any potential sources of ridicule.
Even after I came out, it took me five years and plenty of excuses to even give MGHA a fair shot. “I’m too busy, I don’t have all my gear, I probably can’t afford it. Besides, I’m probably the only gay that actually knows how to play this ‘hyper-masculinized’ sport, plus…I’m not that gay.”
It wasn’t until I used that excuse to an MGHA player at Plan B, when they shot back with “What do you mean by that gay? MGHA isn’t about being gay. It’s about being accepted. What, do you think we’re just a bunch of queens on ice? Okay, well…some of us are…but that aside! You’re assuming what we are. We have plenty of straight players. And, yes, we actually DO know how to play. If you don’t believe me, we have our first clinic this coming Sunday. Show up. See how you do back on skates; see if you can keep up. If you don’t like it…then don’t join.”
I mulled it over for a bit, shocked that all of my excuses had been diffused by this one guy on his fourth drink. Either my excuses were weak or his powers of deliberation were strong. Since his drinks were obviously potent, I could easily dismiss the latter, meaning that I took what he said to heart.
I arrived at Hartmeyer not really planning to talk much with anyone. “Get on the ice, slap the puck around a bit, and leave.”
That plan fell through almost immediately—as soon as I realized and thought to myself, “I didn’t pack my jersey…oh, fu—” The person sitting next to me tossed one at me, saying, “I have an extra one…looks like you need it for the next hour more than my bag does.”
After I geared up, as I took my first strides in over ten years back onto the ice, I looked around and was in awe not only with the number of people, but also with how skilled many of the players were—especially those who had only been in the league for a year or two. “Holy H-E-double-hockey-sticks! There’s actually some pretty stiff competition.”
I found out after the first practice clinic that MGHA is actually the largest rec hockey league in Madison. Because someone got me back on the ice for that one practice, I was able to restore hockey as a part of my weekly routine and even started branching out to other local pickup leagues just to get more ice time. I’m embarrassed by the assumptions and subsequent restrictions I forced on myself, still kicking myself over the fact that it took me this long to get back into a sport I love.
It takes just one person.
Next thing you know, you’re in the game. You’re no longer watching on the sidelines. You’re ready to make the big play…and you fall on your ass. In front of everyone.
But instead of a laugh, you get a hand reaching out to help you back on your feet. You get words of affirmation; that you’re almost there, that they’re gonna make sure you keep at it, that you get better, and that you succeed.
The hardest part of accomplishing any goal in life is taking the initiative to start. Sometimes we sit on the bench and watch others as they make the big plays. Sometimes we talk with others about our aspirations, that someday, we’ll be successful. Someday, we’ll prove ourselves to anyone that ever challenged us. Someday, we’ll be in a better place. And sometimes we just sit there…waiting for everything to be right.
It takes just one person.
This is the kind of play that everyone faces each day, on and off the ice. How others respond speaks to their demeanor. How you react can speak wonders to your character.
Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Cis, Straight, Queer, Questioning…
Within MGHA, everyone is viewed as a teammate, regardless of which team you play for. You are viewed, accepted, and respected as a person. And if you can lace up those skates and make it on the ice, you can play. Even after your first time there, you develop the mindset that it’s no longer MGHA and you’re a participant. You get the feeling right away that you are an extension of MGHA.
The best thing that MGHA does is that it embraces everyone looking for friends and community. It becomes a family that you know will be there for you, a group of individuals that you can learn and grow from. You can make mistakes and people will be there not to point them out, but to take the time to help teach you. You learn about far more than hockey. You learn about the intricate diversity in those around you. You learn about yourself. You learn to replace your timid discomfort with appreciation and respect. You learn how to be there for others while you develop more confidence and trust in yourself.
Why join? The better question is; why not? Perhaps you haven’t gotten that push yet. Perhaps you don’t think you’re good enough. Perhaps you have an excuse like I did that hasn’t been dissolved away by someone. Perhaps you’re scared to make that play and fall on the ice. Make that play. If you fall, we’ll be here to help you up.
And soon enough, you’ll be the one who’s helping others up.