Like many boys in Canada, Colin MacPhail spent much of his childhood at the ice rink in his hometown of Kingston, Ontario.
While many men harbour fond memories of their youth hockey days characterized by camaraderie, team travel to tournaments and sporting achievement, the same cannot be said for MacPhail. MacPhail is a gay man, whose experience of youth hockey was marred by a persistent exposure to homophobia.
“The homophobia was pretty predominant, from coaches to players,” MacPhail tells Daily Xtra. “The word ‘fag’ was always popped in the dressing room . . . I remember a coach coming in, and our team wasn’t playing very well. He basically said we were ‘playing like a bunch of queers’ out there.”
As an adult and participant in Toronto’s Gay Hockey Association, MacPhail reflects on the homophobia he faced in youth hockey, realizing that its intention was to cause confusion and shame over his sexual identity. He calls youth hockey the “concrete to his closet door.”
Terry Finucan, one of MacPhail’s teammates and the sponsorship coordinator at the Toronto Gay Hockey Association, describes his youth hockey experience as a “living breathing nightmare.” He says he wasn’t as skilled as the other players, which resulted in his teammates, coaches, father and brothers ridiculing him and calling him a “sissy.”
“There was so much shame about being considered not manly,” Finucan says. “I wanted to hang around the kitchen with my mother, or go hang out with the girl next door. That was constantly brought up.”
“It was demoralizing and destroyed my self-esteem.”
Is Hockey uniquely homophobic?
The short answer is no — most youth sports contain an element of homophobia.
A recent international study called Out on the Field, which examines on homophobia in sport, found that 73 percent of nearly 9,500 people surveyed still think that youth sports are not safe or welcoming for LGBT people. Of these respondents, 80 percent had witnessed or experienced first-hand homophobia in sport.
Caroline Fusco, associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto, has studied locker room cultures and homophobia in youth sports. Her research highlighted the growing cultural shift towards LGBT rights and the seeming stubborn persistence of homophobia in sports.
“Despite a lot of advances in LGBTQ rights and diversity of thought and sexuality, people are still experiencing places like locker rooms as scary and homophobic places,” she tells Xtra.
Fusco’s research has led to the creation of The Changeroom Project at the University of Toronto, which aims to foster dialogue around creating changeroom spaces that are more inclusive, compassionate and aware of LGBT people.
But hockey — in the Canadian context — presents a unique challenge to young men.
Hockey is central to Canadian identity. It’s more than just a game — it’s ritual of group belonging, especially for young men, although this ritual carries the heteronormative nature of sport. Being excluded from hockey can thus take on the added meaning of being excluded from the national community.
Finucan described growing up and playing hockey in Etobicoke in the 1970s, which he says had the potential to marginalize young people. “There was a sense of belonging if you played hockey and a sense of not belonging if you didn’t play hockey.”
MacPhail remembers a moment when he feared his sexuality would interfere with his ability to be part of his team. “You’re thinking, I’m not gay, I’m not gay, God no. It can’t be.”
MacPhail and Finucan’s experiences are by no means isolated incidents, as with many of the men who now play in the Toronto Gay Hockey League.
Reconnecting with the joy of the game
MacPhail remembers the exact moment when he reconnected with the little boy who loved the feel of the wind on his face when he skated hard, the dash for the puck in the corner and the joy of scoring goals as the hard earned reward of teamwork.
“My second game [in the Toronto Gay Hockey Association] I was driving home and I had to pull the car over to a parking lot, and I sat behind the wheel and I just cried,” he says. “I just cried because I finally found a league where I can play my love, and play in a league where I can love myself and love other people for who they are. It just married the two selves.”
“I cried for that little boy who just wanted to play hockey.”
MacPhail’s deeply emotive experience of reconnecting with the love of the game is a common thread amongst the approximately 150 members of Toronto’s Gay Hockey League, which traces its origins to informal outdoor hockey begun at Upper Canada College 25 years ago.
The league gives LGBT folks the opportunity to reconnect with their youthful love of the hockey in an environment free from homophobia and other forms of discrimination. For many of the association’s membership, playing in the TGHA has been instrumental in deconstructing the homophobia and sexism they faced in youth hockey.
“You have that social aspect where you can meet people. What it’s done is to open up my perspective about how we are all so different but all so similar,” says TGHA player Adam Sloboda. “Hockey just brings us together.” Joining the TGHA was in his words, “one of the best decisions I made as a gay man in my life.”
Instrumental to the association’s joyful celebration of the “great game” is the annual Eastern Canada Cup Tournament, which the TGHA will host this year at their home ice in the historic Maple Leaf Gardens building. The tournament is organized in conjunction with the Association’s partner league in Montreal and attracts participants from all over Canada and the world.
This year’s tournament takes place from Oct 7–9 at Toronto’s Mattamy Athletic Centre. Spectators are welcome to attend free of charge.
“The tournament and this league have been a safe haven for a lot of people,” Finucan tells Xtra. “Many LGBT hockey players and their allies have participated in the Eastern Canada Cup . . . countless lives have been brightened, enriched or quite possibly saved by being able to play a sport they love in a supportive and non-threatening environment.”