(This story was published in 2002).
By: Steve Coppola
As I write this, a framed photograph of our league championship ice hockey team looms over my shoulder. Eighteen ebullient players, 18 ecstatic smiles, one incredible family. Two large rainbow flags are draped over the rink's glass behind the team and over 200 fans stand on the other side are cheering and applauding wildly, waving signs and banners.
Whenever I start to wonder if "gay pride" has become an irrelevant overwrought cliché, I look at the photograph. It's hard to imagine a greater personal source of pride when I consider that these gay athletes not only won it all on April 21, 2002, they also won a lot of respect. Because the Coors Light Colorado Climax not only claimed the championship with a 24-0 record, they did it all against straight teams.
Following that game, players from both teams gathered in a sports bar to celebrate and commiserate. George, our goaltender and a true sportsman, walked over to one of the players from the losing team to offer his congratulations on a great season.
"We wanted to win so badly for one reason," the losing opponent said. "The pom-poms. There are no cheerleaders in hockey!"
To me that morsel of good-natured ribbing goes right to the heart of what it's like for our two openly gay hockey teams to compete against straight teams in a sport so thoroughly steeped in machismo. To many players, an ice hockey rink is a proving ground for one's manhood. I'm sure that to some of our opponents the idea of even having to play on the same sheet of ice with a gay team offends their masculinity. When you play against a Colorado Climax team, you're not just playing to win, you're playing to "beat those fags."
"I'm Gonna Kill You, You Fucking Faggot"
Not every player on every other team demonstrates homophobia on the ice. Indeed, many players we compete against are, win or lose, cordial and good sports during and after the games. Nonetheless, our players are targets of anti-gay epithets and taunts in every game. Having derogatory homophobic slurs hurled at you for two hours every Sunday is a rigorous test of one's self control, especially when you're carrying a 5-foot long stick and wearing two giant razor blades on your feet. But winning is the ultimate revenge, and in the heat of the game you sometimes have to swallow your pride and self-respect, lest you retaliate and get called for a penalty.
Once in a while things can get out of hand and become downright dangerous. In one game during the championship season one of our centers had his leg broken when an opponent responded to a shove by flying into a violent frenzy and pummeling our man while repeatedly shouting "I'm gonna kill you, you fucking faggot!" (Note: The rules of USA Hockey, the national governing body for the sport of hockey in the United States, call for a game misconduct penalty to be called against any player that uses "obscene gestures or racial/ethnic slurs." There's nothing in the rulebook addressing anti-gay language.)
I like to think that our players claim the moral high ground by responding to the homophobic provocations and gay baiting with either silence or a deftly delivered gesture or retort. (Currently, "Are you asking me for a date?" is a popular favorite among our players.) Last year during a game against a team whose players all sported dangling grungy goatees, Ed, a hardnosed Climax defenseman and ex-Marine who never shies from a confrontation, was getting anti-gay flack from an opponent who was in his face. The other player was called for a penalty, and when the refs turned away Ed grabbed the player's goatee and gave it a couple of hefty yanks. How sweet was that?
Sometimes the caustic verbal barbs are misplaced. Earlier in the past summer season an opponent shouted to Mik, one of our premier centers, "Get away from me, you faggot, I don't want to get AIDS from you." Mik, whose gay brother also plays for a Climax team, is straight. But to Mik that didn't make the insult any less offensive.
Some people may excuse the verbal abuse as the expression of a hardy competitive spirit venting itself in the heat of a game. (After all, anyone who has played competitive ice hockey knows that the sport by its nature can trigger sudden outburst of rage in any player.) But clearly some of the insults are premeditated. And one example of this also shows how something good can come out of all the enmity.
A year ago, Nate Butler, a bisexual HIV-positive player, was a defenseman for another team that one night found itself being beaten handily by the Colorado Climax. That wasn't going down well with some of Nate's teammates, one in particular who declared during a stoppage of play that he was going to "beat up one of them AIDS-carrying faggots". He then deliberately provoked a fight with Ed. Bad choice. Not only did Ed get the best of that encounter, he drew the penalty and finished off by blowing kisses to the penalized player who headed to the penalty box. After the game, Nate sat quietly in his team's locker room contemplating the oppressive anti-gay ranting that continued, and wallowed in personal disgust with the exhibition of AIDS phobia that surrounded him. On his way out he passed by the Colorado Climax locker room and heard us all laughing and sounding like we cared for each other, were having fun, and really believed in the value of teamwork.
Nate quit the team in mid-season and has been a Colorado Climax ever since.
Not surprisingly, the homophobic heckling isn't limited to the opposing players. Their fans sometimes chime in with rude and offensive comments. During a playoff game last season one fan even went so far as to hang a banner with a rather lame and bizarre attempt at mocking our team name. Also, earlier this year I was in the stands watching the Climax take on their arch-nemesis, a team that for three years has had an especially strong repugnance for us. A few yards away a boorish lout, apparently showing off for his girlfriend, was showering our players with harsh and vulgar insults throughout the game. The Climax won the game, 5-2, and as I was leaving I was tempted to unleash a vicious verbal attack of my own on the jerk. But as he walked by me, the look of shame and humiliation on his face over his vain and worthless arrogance was more satisfying than any effect my words might have achieved.
Are there any upsides to playing against straight teams? I think so. On a rare occasion during the traditional post-game handshake an opposing player will sincerely apologize for his statements or the statements of his teammates. And on the lighter side Eric, a defenseman for the Colorado Climax Too, fondly recalls sharing the showers with the team from the West Metro Fire Department. He took a rather leisurely shower that evening.
In spite the adversity that may be heaped on us by the straight competition, I think that the Coors Light Colorado Climax hockey teams are successful for reasons that transcend the notion that "we have to play harder to prove ourselves". We are loaded with high caliber players. We are probably the only team in the league that holds organized practices every week. We have experienced and dedicated captains who train us hard. We have the enthusiastic support from the GLBT community and a major corporate sponsor.
And, at the risk of becoming maudlin, I would say that as gay men and women, we have the advantage of a uniquely deep understanding and appreciation of the concepts of mutual respect and togetherness that I believe are essential to success in sports. Perhaps for that reason alone I'll never get tired of looking at that championship team photograph.