For those—gay and straight—who think that ice hockey is a blood sport populated by gap-toothed Saskatchewan farm boys pummeling each other with their fists and sticks, the term “gay hockey” might seem like a contradiction in terms. But don’t tell Bobby Cronin that gay men are better at salchows than slap shots. The theater director from Massachusetts (currently residing on the Upper East Side) laced up his first pair of hockey skates when he was three, was recruited by Yale to play on their varsity team, and now plays in a rec league at Chelsea Piers. He’s also a coach for the New York City Gay Hockey Association (NYCGHA).
There was a period, however, when Cronin quit skating. He was reacting, like so many gay hockey players, to the uncomfortable he-man atmosphere of the locker room and harassment by opponents, teammates, and coaches. “I hated hanging out in the locker room listening to conversation that was mostly derogatory things about women,” says Cronin about his one and a half seasons as a Yale Bulldog. “When I got injured and couldn’t skate for a few months, I looked for other things to do. I auditioned for a play and was picked for a part and was asked to join a singing group. I didn’t go back to the hockey team.”
Although he skated intermittently since moving to New York five years ago, it wasn’t until Cronin came upon the NYCGHA and began playing with other gay hockey players that he felt excited about the game again.
Jeff Kagan, the NYCGHA founder and codirector, began exploring the possibility of creating a gay New York hockey team in October 1998 after competing at the Friendship Tournament hosted by the Toronto Gay Hockey Association (TGHA). “I asked myself, ‘How come we don’t have a team like this in New York? There are plenty of gay people; some of them have to play hockey,’ ” explains Kagan, a programmer at HBO.
Unlike Cronin, Kagan was a relative hockey novice who started playing when he was an adult, but he had captained a number of coed teams at Chelsea Piers and was ready to start his own league. Kagan solicited players in AOL chat rooms, and submitted listings on gay Web sites Planet Out and HX. Only five people showed up for the first NYCGHA meeting on July 29, 1999, at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in the West Village, but Kagan continued recruiting and by the end of last summer had found 25 people interested in playing.
Last weekend, the NYCGHA’s traveling team, the Ugly Americans, with a full roster of players, headed to Washington, D.C., to participate in the First Wives International Hockey Tournament for gay hockey teams.
The NYCGHA are just one of a growing number of gay hockey organizations playing throughout the United States and Canada in both “straight” and all-gay leagues. Gay hockey teams in the U.S. are primarily coed, with both gays and lesbians on the rosters. In Canada, there are, not surprisingly, enough skaters to have separate men’s and women’s leagues in some cities. The NYCGHA currently has about 40 skaters in its program—which comprises two teams, the Ugly Americans and the Lions, who play in the rec league at Chelsea Piers—90 percent of whom are men. Like most other gay hockey teams, the NYCGHA is “gay friendly,” inviting straight players to participate. (“Especially if they’re a goalie,” notes Kagan.)
Kagan started the NYCGHA more out of a desire to create a fun outlet for like-minded people to play hockey than a safe haven from gay bashing, which he says he really hasn’t experienced. It is a theme common to other gay hockey programs, started because gay skaters were tired of being injured in checking leagues or by guys doing bad Tie Domi impersonations. They also wanted a place where “you don’t have to change the gender of the other person you’re with and you can talk about who’s cute on the other team,” says Kevin Griffin, secretary of the Vancouver Cutting Edges Gay Men’s Hockey Club.
The Cutting Edges have about 50 members (including two women and a few straight skaters) who play on three different teams within a straight league and are the only gay hockey club in the lower mainland of British Columbia. “I was very nervous about applying to get into the [straight] league,” says Griffin. “I was actually more awkward about it than they [league organizers] were. I was also surprised that there haven’t been more problems, because, you know, ‘Hockey’s homophobic,’ ‘It’s macho.’ In the beginning, some people didn’t like playing against fags, but the league kicked them out. Some of the other teams might play a little harder against us, but we play harder back.”
The Boston Pride is an eight-year-old umbrella organization with two teams, the Lobsters and the Lazers. Its 50 members include gay, straight, bisexual, and transgender players who compete in the straight New England Senior Hockey League in and around Boston. Mark Murphy, a banker in Salem, Massachusetts, and a skater with the Pride, remarks, “Five or six years ago we heard comments from some of the other players, but as we improved and started winning, we heard them less and less.”
Another gay hockey organization, the D.C. Nationals, doesn’t “advertise that we’re gay,” according to Jim O’Donnell, an aerospace engineer who organized the First Wives International Hockey Tournament, in which a NYCGHA team played last weekend. The coed team, which has a number of straight players, competes in a straight rec league in Virginia. O’Donnell says the greatest challenge to playing hockey in Washington, D.C., is finding enough players. Tom Lovenjak, the International Gay and Lesbian Ice Hockey Association commissioner who also plays in the TGHA, notes that it is the threat of being outed, not physically injured, that keeps many gay hockey players from joining gay teams.
The Montreal Dragons are an inclusive bunch; they not only welcome straight players and women in their program, but their Web site is in French and English, as well. (Note to Francophones: French is the language of choice sur la glace.) The gay Montreal league, with four teams and 44 players, has sent a contingent to the last three Gay Games. Sylvain Pigeon, who is organizing the Dragons’ annual hockey tournament, Defi International/Montreal 2000, which will take place in mid May, says that the league could probably have more teams, but they don’t have enough ice (a common complaint for all hockey teams). Pigeon, who grew up in a tiny town of 1000 people eight hours north of Montreal, where “hockey is a religion,” says about playing on a gay hockey team, “It’s fun to play and not have to pretend who you are.”
The Women’s Hockey Club of Toronto (WHCT) has 12 teams and 180 players, making it one of the largest lesbian and lesbian-friendly leagues in North America. Started seven years ago, the WHCT (which is about 95 percent lesbian) encourages women who have never played hockey to participate, and creates new rosters each season so that one team doesn’t dominate from year to year. Karen Decker, who is on the club’s organizing committee, notes that there are other gay women’s teams in the area that play in straight leagues.
Skill levels in the various gay hockey clubs varies widely. Indeed, the NYCGHA sees an assortment of abilities at its practices, from novice puck heads to ex-college players like Cronin. The disparity in on-ice talent is a common denominator among many of the teams, especially in newer programs like New York’s. The Boston Pride was able to add a second team for beginning skaters, the Lazers, when membership grew too big for the Lobsters’ roster. The Lobsters are now the program’s elite team and play in a more competitive division. On the other hand, in Toronto, a hockey hotbed, “Eighty percent of the players [in the TGHA] have played hockey before and we have very few beginners,” says Tom Lovenjak. “Although we do put on clinics.”
Of course, it isn’t just the game—learning the basics for novices and sharpening skills for veterans—that attracts gay players to gay hockey teams. As the Boston Pride’s Mark Murphy notes, “It’s the atmosphere of mutual respect and support along with the social element which is very important to people.” (These are also the factors that appeal to straight players.)
Bobby Cronin describes his experience being gay and playing with the NYCGHA this way: “Suddenly I went back to being 18 again and if you put on hockey equipment you were supposed to be straight. It was overwhelming to be on the ice with 30 other gay people. There was so much pressure to be mean and masculine and nasty when I was growing up. I still apologize when I hit someone, but now I’m not the only one saying it.”