By Jeff Kagan
Editor’s Note: As Jeff Kagan is being honored by Barefoot Wines for his co-founding the adult LGBT and LGBT-friendly New York City Gay Hockey Association (NYCGHA) with his teammate, Jeff Minck, I’d like to share with you the story he wrote for Compete Magazine’s sister-publication, StandUp Magazine in the spring of 2013 prior to Wade Davis coming on as You Can Play’s executive director. It may be Jeff’s personal story about his love for ice hockey but it could easily be your story – it represents the universal love and passion for sports of gay athletes everywhere and the deep-seated need to play as an openly gay athlete. I hope you enjoy it.
There was a time in my life when ice hockey was all I’d think about. It captivated me, pushing all other interests aside. Before discovering the game, I had absolutely no interest in sports whatsoever, actually despising all sports. This may have had something to do with my height; not quite five feet tall throughout high school. Or maybe it was because my hand-eye coordination didn’t truly develop until I was in my mid-twenties. But hockey came along when there was a big void in my life and it changed everything. It may have been the timing. It may have been fate. There was something about it. The elegance, the magic … it lured me in and brought a new joy to my world.
I’d play at all hours of the night, some of my games starting after midnight when the ice was available. One season I was able to skate four nights in a row, playing every Thursday through Sunday. I’d limp into work on Monday morning, loving every bit of pain as it reminded me of the hours of fun I had over the last four days. It was a wonderful time in my life. In my mid-twenties, I was new to ice hockey and new to New York City, both clearly defining me to my friends and family.
I dedicated all of my free time to the game. I began following the New York Rangers, not as a “band-wagon fan” but in 1993, the year before they won their Stanley Cup when they finished last in the league. I was watching every National Hockey League (NHL) game I could and going to as many games as I could. I even took a 14-hour train ride to Montreal for the weekend with a friend just to see a Canadiens game in the beloved Montreal Forum before it closed for good.
In 1995 I went to the All-Star Game in Denver and got to meet the legendary Gordie Howe. I had my picture taken with him elbowing me to the head which was his signature move. In 1996 I was a Pee Wee Youth Hockey Coach at Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers and my team played against the team that Wayne Gretzky’s two sons played on. Of course I’d speak to Wayne at the rink every week which was as surreal as you could imagine for any hockey fan!
Being on the ice was now second nature to me. I was a hockey player. I was in the best shape of my life and I felt more comfortable in my skates than I did out of them. Covered head-to-toe in all of my gear, I felt invincible. But deep inside where no hockey gear could protect me, I was still vulnerable due to a part of my life that I had yet to reveal to my teammates, my friends or my family. I was gay.
I worried that if my secret ever got out, I would no longer be able to play hockey. I don’t exactly remember why I felt that way but it is a feeling that I will never forget. How would people look at me if they knew? Who would want me on their team? How would I be treated in the locker room? Who would want me to coach their children? Sadly, these are the thoughts that haunted me day and night. What if my secret got out … what if?
On nights when I couldn’t sleep I’d spend a lot of time on the Internet looking for answers about my sexuality. Alone and afraid, I had no one I could talk to about this. I’d search keywords to see where they’d lead, hoping for a few articles that might comfort my racing brain. One of the first words I tried was the word “gay.” Not surprisingly, over 10,000 results appeared but they were not exactly educational. I decided to see what would happen if I searched for keywords “gay” and “hockey” together. Surely nothing would come out of those two words because in my mind the two didn’t belong in the same sentence. But I was pleasantly surprised to find a short list of gay hockey associations.
The first one I checked out was the Toronto Gay Hockey Association. Their website wasn’t tattered with naked men but instead showed pictures of people playing hockey, celebrating together after games and looking genuinely happy. There were game scores and summaries – even a mission statement: “The Toronto Gay Hockey Association offers an environment free from all forms of harassment and discrimination and encourages fair play, openness and friendship.” I thought I was dreaming!
They hosted an annual event in October called The Friendship Tournament. I immediately sent them an email letting them know I was interested but asked if I could participate since I was in the closet. They invited me with open arms. When I arrived at the rink I looked around and saw about 200 hockey players. I nervously asked Paul O’Kane, one of the tournament directors, if they were all gay. He said, “Well, most of ‘em.” Everyone was friendly and I felt welcome. I was placed on the Vancouver team and noticed that next to my name it said “Captain.” When I met with the team and asked why I was listed as the team captain they told me that because I was from New York, they assumed I’d be bossy.
I was instilled with a great sense of belonging. The camaraderie was astounding, as if I had walked into a place where everyone knew my deepest, darkest secret. But rather than push me away, it brought me closer to them. I could let my guard down and just be myself and play hockey. This was the very beginning of my journey, not just toward opening the closet door but toward finding real happiness in my life.
Those four days were four of the greatest days of my life. I learned a lot about myself and realized that my sexual orientation had absolutely nothing to do with my ability to be a hockey player. It would take me some time to process all of it. A few days after returning to New York I got an email from Paul O’Kane asking me to write a short article for their newsletter on the subject, “What Gay Hockey Means to Me.” Still in the closet in New York, I figured I had nothing to worry about with a newsletter that only a handful of people in Toronto would see.
Obviously I knew very little about how the Internet had turned a big world into a very small one. A few days later I got an email from one of my New York teammates, Jeff Minck. He wrote to tell me that he had read an online article by a gay hockey player from New York City named Jeff Kagan and wondered if I was that Jeff Kagan. My heart raced as I read the email and I felt a panic attack coming on. But his next sentence put me at ease. As I continued reading, he told me he was also gay and surprised that there were two gay men on the same hockey team. What were the chances?
The following October both Jeff and I went to Toronto for the tournament. That weekend O’Kane suggested that we set up a similar organization in New York City. We started planning right away, modeling our organization on the one in Toronto. We promoted it in local gay weekly magazines and newspapers and held our first meeting at the LGBT Community Center on July 29, 1999.
New players started coming out of the woodwork and soon we had a few teams. The one similarity I observed among the new members was that many of them had grown up playing ice hockey but decided to give it up in their mid-teens. Many lost interest, citing a feeling of not fitting in. I attribute a lot of these stories to the homophobia that many of us have experienced as children or teenagers.
When I was younger, it wasn’t only my lack of height that made me feel like I didn’t fit in, it was also the sense of being different. I knew I was attracted to boys. And I knew that it was wrong … or at least perceived as wrong by the insults and homophobic slurs tossed around the school yard. Sometimes they were directed at me specifically but generally they were directed at anyone in the sights of the “daily bully.” I use that term because there wasn’t just one bully in my life. There were several. But that comes with the territory when you’re the smallest kid in the schoolyard.
As children, we’ve all heard those disparaging words and they bring with them a feeling, an association of something you do NOT want to be. It is Survival 101 for any child at school – you camouflage yourself in the guise of being “normal” because being different can be dangerous. And if you feel different than your peers, then how soon will it be before they begin to notice it? How soon before you don’t want to be part of that group? That’s how homophobia begins in each of us. We hate ourselves for not fitting in. It isn’t hard to imagine why gay teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.
But that single experience in Toronto of walking into the rink and meeting 200 gay hockey players just like me was all it took to help me rebuild my self-esteem. It made me understand that I didn’t need to worry about being different. I could play the game I loved so much and still be accepted for who I am. That’s the kind of feeling we wanted to create in our members. By joining the New York City Gay Hockey Association, you joined a new family that was just like you, a family that would stand by you.
Homophobia Rears Its Ugly Head
In 2007 the NYC Gay Hockey Association arranged a group trip to see the New York Rangers play. When buying group tickets your group is mentioned on the jumbo screen that hangs over the arena for all of the other patrons to see. There were about 20 of us, very happy to be there, having a great time. We anxiously waited for the second period break to see our organization’s name appear on the giant screen. And there it was. We were thrilled. However, following the appearance of the name “New York City Gay Hockey Association,” 10,000 Rangers fans began to boo, making it clear that we were not welcome.
My heart began to race. I wasn’t sure if I was feeling angry or terrified, or a combination of both. Shortly after this incident we wrote a letter to Glenn Sather, the Rangers General Manager, asking him to create a fan education program that denounced anti-gay remarks. When we didn’t get any feedback from the Rangers, our next step was to contact New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Quinn, who is gay, arranged a sit-down with us and the management of Madison Square Garden to determine what could be done to prevent this from happening again. The atmosphere in the meeting was tense but we opened a dialogue on the subject at hand. As a result, management at Madison Square Garden began to broadcast warnings that they would remove fans who behaved offensively. They also posted additional security throughout the arena.
In November 2009 Brendan Burke, the youngest son of the Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, came out to his team. Brendan was an athlete and student manager of the RedHawks Men’s Ice Hockey Team at Miami University in Ohio. Coming out in this forum was somewhat unusual considering that homophobia was still present in many parts of the sports world. But he had the courage to move forward and he was praised by his teammates and the hockey community at large. News stories of his coming out hit the sports section of newspapers and websites all across North America. I can still remember reading every article on the subject. I was so happy for Brendan, happy for his courage to come out but also for the respect that he earned from his teammates, and most importantly, from his family.
Tragically, less than three months later Brendan and a friend were killed in a car accident driving in a snowstorm in Indiana. I read the news that day with tears in my eyes. As a fellow gay athlete, Brendan was an inspiration to me. He was one of us. He had a great future ahead of him working to fight homophobia in sports.
While this seemed like this was the end of his story at the time, it was really only the beginning. In March 2012 Brendan’s dad Brian and his brother Patrick founded the You Can Play Project along with Brian Kitts and Glenn Witman of GForce Sports. Their goal was to continue Brendon’s fight against homophobia in sports. In an article about his brother, Patrick Burke wrote that the entire Burke family promised their “unwavering, unremitting, relentless support” of the cause.
The You Can Play Project has made some amazing progress over the past year. Patrick Burke has traveled all over with LGBT athletes and allies, making speeches at various schools and colleges, and spreading the organization’s very basic yet important seven-word message: “If you can play, you can play.”
The organization’s goals are as follows:
“You Can Play is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. You Can Play works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team’s success. You Can Play seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit.”
Over 60 NHL players and personnel have endorsed the campaign as well as several American Hockey League and college teams. These statistics alone were enough to bring a smile to my face. But then on Thursday, April 11, 2013 my jaw dropped. Commissioner Gary Bettman of the National Hockey League (NHL) held a press conference announcing a partnership between the NHL, the NHL Players’ Association and the You Can Play Project.
Bettman said, “Our motto is ‘Hockey Is For Everyone,’ and our partnership with You Can Play certifies that position in a clear and unequivocal way. While we believe that our actions in the past have shown our support for the LGBT community, we are delighted to reaffirm through this joint venture with the NHL Players’ Association that the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands.”
This was truly a dream come true. I began thinking not so much about the professional athletes who may be struggling in the closet, but more about the kids – the youth hockey players of the world, the teenagers who right this very minute are going through the same torture that so many of us endured years ago. This partnership is a light at the end of the tunnel and it sends a very clear message of inclusion, not rejection.
In his interview about the partnership, Patrick Burke’s most poignant quote is, “The big thing for me as an older brother is that, looking back, I didn’t do enough because I didn’t know. I didn’t do enough at the time to make sure that his locker room was safe and that he was feeling at home in the sports culture. By the time I learned to change my ways and to do what I needed to do, it was too late for him as a young athlete,” Burke said. “This is, from the Burke family’s perspective, this is making sure that the next generation of LGBT athletes and coaches and fans don’t have to go through what Brendan went through.”
The partnership between the You Can Play Project and the NHL is not only improving the hockey experience for everyone, it is also bringing hope to a whole new generation of hockey fans. We won’t see so many players walking away from the game they love. They’ll stick with it, try harder, and know that they’ll be judged only on their abilities as athletes. I now feel the support of the NHL – I feel included. And that same feeling of support is going around from locker room-to-locker room, with hockey players of all ages, from Pee-Wee league to the NHL, now knowing that if they can play, they can play.