My memory of my first game is fuzzy. I want to say I was 15 or 16 years old. It was a Pee Wee game between the Buffalo Regals and some team from Toronto, my first time wearing the orange armbands in a three-official system.

I don’t remember what penalties I called, who won, or what led to me tossing the coach from Toronto. But I will never forget what he said to me after I told him to leave, and the snickers that I heard from his assistant coaches and some of the players.

“I’ll say hi to your boyfriend in the lobby.”

He didn’t mean it as a message of acceptance.

At that point in my life I was desperately trying to convince myself that I was straight. I went to school in a relatively conservative district about half an hour outside of Buffalo. In my high school the gay kids (or the kids we suspected were gay) were social outcasts.

I didn’t want to be one of them.

Mix that desire with a testosterone-fueled sport like hockey and you’ll find yourself deep in the closet.

As officials, we consider ourselves to be the third team on the ice. Every game we work, whether it’s a house game on a Saturday morning or a state championship game, we strive to be the hardest-working, best team out there on the ice. If one guy makes a mistake (I can admit it, we do make mistakes) it can make the whole crew look bad.

Like many others who have shared their coming out story, I was nervous about how my team would react if I ever did decide to come out. Would they still feel comfortable working games with me? Would they still want to share the locker room with me?

After high school I attended Canisius College, a small Catholic-Jesuit school in the City of Buffalo. One would think that attending a Catholic school would drive me even further into the closet. In fact it did the opposite.

In my four years at Canisius I was exposed to a world I never got to experience at my rural high school. I met people who were openly gay and proud of it. They weren’t social outcasts, they were actually fun to hang out with.

“A lot of the guys I skate games with have had the opportunity to meet my boyfriend, and I frequently have guys ask me when they get to meet him.”

Nevertheless, I kept looking for a girlfriend my freshman through junior years, all the while knowing that’s not what I really wanted.

Finally, the summer before my senior year I decided to switch the “looking for” button on Tinder from girls to guys. I met a guy, and I’m happy to say we’re still together three years later.

I came out to my family and a few close friends. That was the easy part. I knew they all loved me, and frankly a lot of them had always had a feeling I was gay. No girlfriend all throughout high school and college was probably a pretty big hint.

Yet hanging over my head was how coming out to everyone else (namely my fellow officials) would impact my favorite thing: refereeing hockey.

One year after I had come out to my family and some friends I was still “mostly” in the closet. I won’t get too political here, but on November 9, 2016, I wasn’t exactly happy about who was elected President of the United States, and more specifically Vice President.

I typed up a long Facebook status with no intention of actually letting the rest of my world see it. To me it was just a way to vent. But the more and more I stared at the status update I had typed out, I realized that I had to do this.

I clicked “post,” sat back, and waited.

Most of the responses I expected. Friends from college and high school, as well as extended family, telling me how proud they were of me and that they loved me. A few idiots from my high school said I was being whiny about the election results and I was just doing it for attention.

What was unexpected was the response from my brothers and sisters in stripes. I couldn’t keep track of all the messages and texts that began to roll in.

“I have your back no matter what”

“If you ever need me to kick anyone’s ass let me know”

“You’ll always be the definition of class”

“I’ll always be happy to share the ice with you”

The fears I had about coming out to everyone were erased in just one night. I could finally officiate a game without this huge weight on my shoulders. A lot of the guys I skate games with have had the opportunity to meet my boyfriend, and I frequently have guys ask me when they get to meet him.

“Team Stripes had my back. They’ll have yours too.”

I’m not writing this to bring attention to me. Every time I walk into a rink, whether it’s for a Division I college game on a Friday night or for a Pee Wee travel game on a Sunday morning, my goal is to officiate the game and leave the rink unnoticed.

No current or former NHL player has ever come out as gay. I’m writing this with the intention of inspiring hope for a young hockey player or hockey official struggling with their sexuality.

Team Stripes had my back. They’ll have yours too.

Alex Valvo, 24, is an ice hockey referee with NCAA Division I, NCAA Division III, and USA Hockey. He is a 2016 graduate of Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. He can be reached at [email protected], on Facebook, on Twitter @alex_valvo, and Instagram @alex_valvo.

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