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How I Became a Fan: Women’s Hockey

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From my time playing in the Boston University Pep Band, to cheering on the Wisconsin Badgers, women’s hockey has been a huge part of my life.

The Boston University Women’s Ice Hockey team celebrates winning the 2012 WHEA Tournament by taking their championship photo in front of the pep band. I’m the one above Marie-Philip Poulin’s head, because of course I am.
Todd Huxley Smith, Hockey East Online

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I fell in love with hockey in college. I was in the marching band at Boston University, a university that has no football team. Hockey is our biggest sport, and we take it seriously. The upperclassmen taught the rookies all the traditions. What songs we played, what cheers we did, what all the rules meant.

Finally our men’s hockey home opener came. It was electric, and I was hooked right away. The fast pace, the skill, the athleticism, I soaked it all in. Per tradition, the first song the band plays is a bullfighter’s theme. After the final note, the entire band and student section yells “Olé!” Much to my surprise, the student section continued yelling:

“Perricone, you’re gay!”

What? I didn’t really process what had happened. I asked the senior next to me to confirm what I thought I heard. He confirmed, with a chuckle and a grin, that we call the other team’s goalie gay to try to throw him off his game. This took me completely by surprise. The fans of the sport that I love were using homosexuality to make fun of the opposing goalie. And I, a closeted gay eighteen year old, stood there and listened to them do it. Every home game. I could count on one hand the number of people that knew I was gay, and my courage to expand that number vanished.

As quickly as I had learned to love hockey, I learned that the world of men’s hockey is not a welcoming one for people like me. The homophobic cheers are indicative of the underlying culture of men’s hockey. It’s a space that values violence over skill, grit over responsible behavior.

Luckily for me, my college also has a top-tier women’s hockey program. Here the homophobic cheers were nowhere to be found, and the lack of fighting and machismo meant that I got to see more of what I really love, fast-paced and skilled hockey. I really fell in love with hockey at the 2012 Women’s Hockey East Championship. I watched a Marie-Philip Poulin shot ricochet past Geneviève Lacasse with 7.7 seconds left in regulation to force OT, and I’ve never been so excited as when Jenn Wakefield buried the puck in 2OT to win the game.

You could say the band and the women’s hockey team had a close relationship. We would tweet each other love notes on Valentine’s Day. My favorite memory is Rebecca Russo coming up to me before the Hockey East Championship Game and asking if the band could move to the other side of the arena because “that’s where you were the last time we won.” We immediately obliged, and it must have worked, because they repeated as Hockey East Champions and took their victory photo with the band in the background.

After graduation, I moved to Madison, WI and eventually ended a long-term relationship. It was a pretty low time for me. I lost interest in everything I had once loved. Even hockey was becoming tedious. When NHL players get suspended for using homophobic slurs, you find yourself wondering why such a huge piece of your heart belongs to a sport that at best is indifferent to you, and at worst hates you. It became increasingly difficult to reconcile my passion for hockey with my identity as a gay man.

I ended up buying season tickets to the Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team. The games confirmed that women’s hockey was for me. The players are just as passionate and dedicated to winning, but without the short tempers and toxic masculinity. When you aren’t constantly trying to prove you’re the most masculine person on the ice, you can spend more time actually playing exciting, skilled hockey. Imagine.

I thought I would give men’s hockey another chance, so I went to a men’s Badger game. Before the puck drop the student section echoed with “Drop the puck. What the f*ck. You still suck. Dick.” Lovely. Bye.

I also joined the Madison Gay Hockey Association, where I learned to play the sport that meant so much to me. The MGHA is an amazing group of people who are proud to be queer and proud to love hockey. It was the first time I could be in a locker room and not fear that I was unwelcome. The first time I could play a competitive sport without worrying I wasn’t acting masculine enough. It was something I didn’t know how badly I needed until I found it.

There are many queer women’s hockey players, which is part of what makes the community so welcoming. Nobody is a spectacle, nobody is pressured to come out if that’s not what’s best for them. It’s just a group of people who love each other and love a sport. Go to a women’s hockey game, and you’ll soon find that everyone, players included, will treat you like family.

Transgender NWHL player Harrison Browne said it best, “You have to be your authentic self to be happy.” I honestly do not know where I would be today if I was not able to find a community of people to help me realize that my passions can live hand in hand with my identity. Women’s hockey and the queer hockey community showed me that I don’t have to hide any part of me to be a die-hard hockey fan. Thanks to women’s hockey and the MGHA, I can say, for the first time in my life, I am being my authentic self. I am happy.

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