Words and photos by Darryn O’malleyIt was a crisp evening in February when I made my way down to the old Maple Leaf Gardens to watch the sport that provides both joy and warmth to many Canadians on frosty winter nights. I arrived at the quiet rink a little early, excited and eager to watch the country’s favourite pastime played in a most inspiring fashion. Not knowing anyone, I stood in the empty hallway and watched through the window as the Zamboni circled the ice surface. I waited anxiously for a few moments. A friendly looking man dressed in a scarf and winter jacket, adorned with rosy cheeks, appeared in the hallway. Hesitantly, I approached him. “Is this the Toronto Gay Hockey Association?” I asked. After reassuring me I was in the right place, he smiled. His eyes lit up with promise and anticipation. “My son is playing tonight,” said Barry Randall.
“This league [the TGHA] is kind of helping him relive his youth a little bit, and the alignment with the gay community provides a very comfortable place,” said Barry. “Charlie has always been an active sports guy.”
Barry was about to watch his song Charlie, 26, play hockey for this first time in years. Barry was visiting from Walkerton, a small town northwest of the city, to spend Family Day with his son and daughter who both live in Toronto now. Charlie had played hockey all his life but gave up the sport when he left Walkerton after high school. Having recently discovered the TGHA, Charlie laced up his skates to engage in the sport he grew up loving once more.
“Just getting back onto the ice and playing hockey is a great feeling no matter what the context is,” said Barry. But as a parent of a gay son, knowing your child has found solace in a community is comforting, he added.
“There is no community in Walkerton,” he said, adding that homophobia is a serious issue.“It’s hard being gay in a small town. Kids get beaten up.”
Barry and I sat in the stands together and cheered for Charlie, who didn’t miss the opportunity to wave to his father as soon as he skated onto the ice.
Like any hockey-loving parent would do, Barry rose to his feet and cheered when his son skated the ice and made an impressive play, but between shifts he reminisced about Charlie as a young boy and the fond memories they share. The gentleness in his eyes and the genuine smile on his face told me their relationship extended far beyond the rink.
“He was the kind of player who would come around the back of the net, but he would have his head down and he would get smoked,” he recalled, chuckling.“But he always got back up.”
Getting back up is something many members of the TGHA have been able to do.
“It’s pretty often that people say this league has changed their lives,” said Bryan Frois, 24, a member of the TGHA who also serves on the executive committee. “This league made it possible for them to play the sport they thought they would never be able to play again.”
A few years back, a friend of Frois’ recommended he join the TGHA. It was not long before Frois was welcomed to a place of friendship, acceptance and unity.
“It changed my life,” he said.
Frois had previously ended his promising hockey career at the age of 17.
“I felt there was no place for me,” he said, adding that it is difficult for gay athletes to come out due to the fear of not being accepted in the locker room.
“I lost a lot of my friends in high school because rumours started going around that I was gay,” said Frois. “I didn’t feel comfortable anymore.”
Since the TGHA came into fruition in 1992, hundreds of gay, lesbian, transgender and heterosexual men and women have played in the league, which provides an all-encompassing environment for athletes from all walks of life.
The league originally consisted of three teams, but the word quickly spread: this was a place you could be yourself in. You didn’t have to hide. You didn’t have to pretend.
Today, the TGHA is the largest gay hockey association in North America. It boasts 10 teams, roughly 150 members and is continuing to expand.
“We don’t tolerate homophobia in our league,” said Frois. “We don’t judge based on skill level, gender or sexuality. We’re just trying to provide an inclusive environment for everyone.”
Members of the TGHA have found a safe haven, but the seemingly never-ending battle against homophobia in athletes still continues in the world of professional sports all across the globe.
Late last year, Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was suspended three games for donning a homophobic slur in his eye black.
When the athletic heroes and role models we grew to idolize later articulate disparaging remarks pertaining to homosexuality, it’s no wonder gay athletes feel uncomfortable both in the locker room and on the playing field.
“Some people don’t understand where these words [homophobic comments] come from,” said Frois. “People also have a tendency to associate these words with other, negative types of meanings.”
The word ‘gay’, for example, is often used to denote something as “weird” or “ugly”, Frois said. “These words are misused,” he said.
“People might use these words and not actually imply that the person is gay, but they use them because it is commonplace to put someone down, to attack their masculinity or sexuality.”
But the TGHA provides an affable atmosphere for all of its players.
“The locker room is just like any locker room, but a more cordial one,” said Charlie. “There’s no vulgarity.”
You Can Play, which is an organization that is dedicated to promoting equal opportunity in sports, regardless of sexual orientation, has adopted the mantra that it doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight, “if you can play, you can play.”
Many professional athletes, college athletes and celebrities have teamed up with the You Can Play project to ensure gay athletes are given a fair chance to compete, judged only on their skill level and not their sexual orientation.
“If you work hard enough, if you’re talented enough, if you’re competitive enough, then you deserve to be on a team,” said Patrick Burke, co-founder of You Can Play. “And if you deserve to be on a team, you deserve to be treated with respect. For gay athletes, that means being free from homophobic slurs, from bullying, from anti-gay language.”
Burke said the vast majority of sports teams have an issue with language in their locker
room, and engage in what is referred to as “casual homophobia”. “What we’re trying to d0 with athletes is put the connection [between homophobia and slurs] together in their mind,” he said. “What they think is an innocent word that doesn’t mean anything is the exact word that is scaring their gay teammate back into the closet.”
The TGHA is not a place where athletes are separated by whatever differences they might have, but a place where people are united by a common bond, a love for the game of hockey, and a compassion and understanding that unfortunately cannot be mirrored in every sporting league.
I returned to the iconic Maple Leaf Gardens, now the Mattamy Athletic Centre, the following weekend to watch Charlie hit the ice again. Before his game, we sat in the stands with his teammates and watched the other TGHA teams in action. The cheering, amiable chatter and contagious laughter echoed throughout the stands. The camaraderie displayed between teammates was palpable. It was as if the members of the TGHA had found what most of us are still searching for: a place to call home. “People are here to play hockey and have fun,” said Charlie, reiterating what I had recently discovered. “That’s the bottom line.”
Charlie and I sat together for a while, chatting, laughing, and sharing stories as if we had been friends for years. The contentedness and serenity that exuded from his being was unmistakable. Charlie was home. Though he was miles away from the small town of Walkerton where he spent his days as a young boy, the place where he first began his hockey career, Charlie had returned back to his homeland, the icy surface that holds a certain sacredness and provides warmth to those with a calling on even the most frigid days.
And then I thought of Barry, whose eyes illuminated when he saw his son step onto the ice for the very first time in years, whose elation at seeing his son return to the sport they grew up sharing together was nearly too much to contain, who confided in me that he too longs for a day when gay athletes don’t have to conceal their true selves or give up their passions to yield to intolerance.
“Sports are so much more than a game,” Barry said. “Sports give kids some hope.”