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Hockey helps gay player become more social

Len Loewen, goalie in an adult hockey league in Winnipeg, finds being gay is not an issue with teammates.

Photo by Stephen Burns

Len Loewen played ice hockey for all of six months before he broke his arm.

While trying to defend against a player on the opposing team, an inexperienced Loewen was checked and knocked over.

"He was a pretty big guy and I thought I could just poke check the puck off of his stick, but he didn’t see me coming and he freight-trained me," says Loewen, running his finger down his forearm towards his wrist. "These scars here are where they put the pins in."

Loewen’s hockey experience up until that point wasn’t on the ice, but on the street and on the gym floor.

He started out by playing ball hockey in WInnipeg, Canada, with his friends in grade nine; that’s where his passion for the game started.

"I’d line up my own net on the driveway and just slap tennis balls at it and break a few windows," says Loewen. "Eventually my dad put plywood in the windows because I kept breaking them."

Later, he played on an all-gay ball hockey team. After the arm-breaking incident, Loewen thought about how he could avoid future injuries.

"I was sitting there with a busted arm thinking, ‘there’s a sale on goalie equipment right now. Maybe I’ll get myself a chest protector and helmet and they’ll have someone to play in net’."

Loewen returned to ball hockey and played goal for a number of years before he eventually bought goalie skates for ice hockey. To sharpen his skills, he even went to the Rick St. Croix School of Goaltending, an internationally-recognized training program established by the former NHL player.

"That was the closest I’ve ever come to throwing up in my helmet," he says. "[The program] really puts you through the paces out there but they did a great job just building confidence and helping with technique."

In the locker room of his adult hockey team, Loewen has never experienced any bullying, or anything that has made him particularly uncomfortable. Once, a teammate came into the locker room and said, "I just drove past Pride with all those gay people." Loewen simply stood up and said, "Oh hey man, that’s cool. Did you see me there?"

"The room went quiet and then everyone just kind of laughed," Loewen says. "I’ve heard some stuff thrown around and maybe it bothered me as a kid. As an adult I’ve learned to deal with it."

His experience coming out to his family, however, was much different. His parents didn’t take it well; his father even offered him counseling.

"My mom could barely put words together and my dad was offering whatever kind of help he could to fix me," Loewen says. "At 21 I moved out of my house because I needed my parents to figure it out for themselves."

Over time, his parents came to accept him. In fact, Loewen has found that fewer and fewer people have issues with him being gay. He has never faced any serious homophobia in the locker room and has been accepted by his teammates.

"I told one teammate I was gay and he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Len, what year is it? 2013? Nobody cares,’" Loewen says.

If sports has done anything for Loewen, it has helped him become a more social person.

"I can be introverted at times but extroverted when I become comfortable with people," he said. "Playing hockey is a great way to make friends. Sometimes you make friends and sometimes you don’t."

"But I love going to Bombers and Jets games, or going to a pub, having beers and wings and watching a game."

Stephen Burns is a Creative Communications Student at Red River College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. This is one in his series on sexual orientation in sports in Winnipeg, Canada. You can read the other articles in which Burns profiles several gay athletes and examines their journey through the world of sports at: Out of the closet and off the bench. You can reach Stephen at: srossburns@gmail.com.