February 18, 2007 will forever be one of the most important days of my life. It was the championships at the Madison Ice Arena for the Madison Gay Hockey Association, and the buzz surrounding the games had reached a fever pitch. Red. Grey. Teal. Black. All four teams had spent an entire season riding a wave of precedents and a momentum that the word “Unbelievable” isn’t strong enough to describe.
Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton RSVP’d and so did Supreme Court candidate Linda Clifford. Both were scheduled to drop the first puck in one of the two championship games. Governor Jim Doyle and Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz sent published letters of endorsement and applause. And me? I was tucked away in the ref’s closet drying the tears that slipped out of my eyes before calling in to John Quinlan’s live radio show Forward Forum. What was happening was truly surreal. Team Black captain Mark Sadowski was out in the lobby talking to News Channel 3. The crowd in the stands was slowly swelling to what would end up being well over 300 people armed with posters, winter coats and sequined teal scarves that Team Teal fans brought to support their friends out on the ice.
Through all of the hype and excitement, it’s easy to forget that everyone collected to see a hockey league where the majority of it’s players had barely learned how to stand on ice skates just this season.
How does something like this happen???
I spent the majority of February 18th crying. I didn’t sleep much the night before, or the week before, for that matter. Writing the speech I planned to read at the championships was weighing heavily on my mind. It felt like the most important thing I would ever do in my life to date. The introspection this caused released something from deep within me that was absolutely terrifying to take. I procrastinated as long as possible before putting any words onto paper. And when words from my reflection did finally pour out, they came with tears. I cried more frequently than I’ve ever experienced before, from how honest I was being with myself.
Writing that speech gave me time to think about and recognize what had happened to me over the past year, and how much I grew because of it. That night as I read the speech to the players and our community, I felt like I was carrying on my shoulders the words of everyone who went through this experience with me.
In the course of a couple months, I watched Mark Sadowski engage himself enough to lead one of our teams each week—a role that led him to coming out to his father. Out on a cold night at Tenney Pond, I stood there just to see him and his sister Angie working on positioning and basic drills with a group of hockey rookies that you could see had never considered the sport prior to this group. I learned about how Sarah Covington spent hours writing to some of her teammates to help keep their morale and support high enough to continue. I watched Jay Potash arrive each week with the most real and beautiful idea of hope in his eyes that was beginning to replace the fear of being gay he had when I first met him. I watched Tony Teit grow, from cautiously placing his name on the MGHA website to becoming one of our poster boys. I watched Michelle Watkins step up and challenge herself to materialize a hockey brunch idea into what became one of the best New Years parties in Madison. All of the people on the ice, and all of the people in the stands had come for more than just a hockey league. They came to embrace who they are.
New York City in 2002.
Gay hockey. Did I have any idea what I was signing up for? I had never played hockey before. I’d only been on ice skates maybe once or twice. I came out to my mother only a few years earlier, but never found a way I considered safe to enter New York’s gay community, until a friend mentioned a gay ice hockey team that plays in Chelsea.
‘Gay’ and ‘ice hockey’ adjacent to each other. That was a challenging dichotomy for me to wrap my head around. Part of what kept me so isolated, so lonely, and so away from anything gay, was my very underdeveloped understanding of sexuality. I had such a narrow understanding of gender. I always identified as masculine. In fact, looking back, I am certain I overcompensated in counter-productive and unnecessary ways just to be certain I was being seen as masculine. But ‘gay hockey’? It sounded like such an oxymoron, yet such a draw to me, so as soon as I could, I found a way to gather up the money and the gear, and I signed up.
When I stepped into the Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers for the first time, I was all nerves from the repressed excitement I was holding inside. With my hockey bag over my shoulder and this awkward stick in my hand, I walked into the locker room and got my first sight of the faces of the men who were about to become my teammates…for life. I felt so incredibly out of my comfort zone. I was vulnerable to them. I needed to trust that the guys in this room with me were here for the same reason I was. I needed community. I needed to grow. The way I was seeing life presently left too much to be desired.
Well, I spent the next 4 years of my life growing. I proudly played inside the New York City Gay Hockey Association. The experience I had with this group gave me essential reasons for valuing community. But, more importantly, community that was constructive and able to foster positive personal growth. I needed people like me who could help me feel safe and could challenge me to find and become who I am, more than I had ever been able to before I joined. When I initially signed up, though, I’d convinced myself that I was only signing up to learn to play hockey. Thats what got me in the door. Inside, I found a subtle, yet incredibly potent something more. I discovered how to be proud of being gay.
Sometimes, you don’t appreciate what you have until you leave it.
All the growth I was experiencing during that time, on and off the ice, lead to a deep realization…I realized I had to leave New York for my own good. Acting on my decision to move to Wisconsin was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life. It took over a year for me to make. I left a very comfortable job in New York with the world’s premiere magazine company. I left a huge apartment in Manhattan, that anyone who visited described as “having a soul”, and more. I lost years trying to understand why none of those material milestones measured up to happiness. Then one morning, I quite literally just woke, sat up in my bed, opened my mouth and said, “This is not me.” This is not what I value. This is not what I believe in. This is not who I am. Who I am is a guy from a small midwestern town. Who I am is a guy who does not value money or material things the way most people seem to. I am someone who puts love before anything, but here in NYC I was someone who didn’t love himself enough to embrace that. I knew leaving New York meant walking away from a safe, prestigious career that would level me professionally. I knew that meant leaving the NYCGHA.
I moved to Madison about 2 years ago. When I got here I was incredibly lonely again and perhaps naively, didn’t anticipate it to be such a challenge to establish real friendships. Because of hockey, I had begun to inch away from my self-imposed isolation in New York. Subconsciously, the fear of leaving drove me right back and even deeper into it. Although I felt certain I made an honest decision, the path of that choice pushed my life into a new low. Two steps forward, one back… until last July, when a friend took me to the Gay Games in Chicago. The thought of potentially seeing my old teammates again was just what the doctor ordered.
When we arrived, I went straight to the ice rink. As soon as I walked through the doors and felt that crisp chill of the air on my breath; as soon as I heard the sound of hockey sticks slapping the pucks echo off the rink boards, and the scratches from skate blades cutting the ice, something inside of me woke up again. It had been about a week shy of one full calendar year since I walked out of the Sky Rink in NYC for the last time, as part of a NYCGHA team, and retired my stick and skates. The time away, plus my impending return to isolation had created new focus that I had never felt before. I came back to Madison on a mission. My motivation for building the Madison Gay Hockey Association was born.
I recognized how much this group in New York had affected me. I knew how critical the people in it were. They helped me learn a healthy way of looking at myself and at the world. I knew I needed it here.
By the time the MGHA took the ice on October 15th, 2006, about 60 people had made a faith commitment to a league that cost many of them over $300 to join (the initial purchase of all that gear was the toughest part!). On that Sunday night, the Madison Gay Hockey Association became the first LGBTQA ice hockey league ever built, from the ground up, as developmental. We opened our doors as the largest inaugural season in the world for any LGBTQA group of this kind.
I suppose there comes a time in the writing of a book when the story starts to tell itself. Watching the MGHA take on its own life, and flourish, has become one of the most humbling experiences of my life. The child that was brought to life a little less than a year ago has already proven to be a capable teacher. The great people this group has welcomed into my life has, like in New York, helped to extend my understanding of who I am, and broaden my sense of community even farther than I’ve ever known to look.
After the medals from our last games had been given out, we took a group photo that I posted on the front page of the hockey website. I also tacked it above my desk. That picture speaks volumes about what has happened here. The total absence of personal space between teammates, the smiles and embraces between players, and all the emotion in that picture show me proof, each time I see it, that with encouragement and support, when our walls come down, what we create is a family.
“You’re a giant.”
A few days after the season ended, I received an e-mail from one of our goalies, Bazil. All it said was that wonderfully basic and simple, “You’re a giant” quote, which is based on another by Isaac Newton who said, “If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.”
I never replied to that e-mail because of how profound it felt to me. However, it did leave me certain of what needed to be said in return:
“When we come together, aren’t we all?”