It's Saturday night at Arena D inside the Markin MacPhail Centre at Canada Olympic Park and things are not going well for the Calgary Pioneers. The team is missing several players because of holiday season obligations. It is also being outshot 25-9 in a 1-0 game.
The evening won't get much better for the Pioneers, who end up losing 3-1 to the Wingmen, a division foe with a full bench. But captain Mike Bell and his Pioneer teammates are all grins and chuckles as they leave the ice. This is, after all, what they wanted most: to be part of the 96-team WinSport Hockey Canada League, one of the largest men's recreational non-contact leagues in the city. Here, the Pioneers are modern-day trailblazers – the first openly gay men's hockey team in Alberta. They not only feel safe, they feel accepted.
"Being able to play a game we love," Mr. Bell says, "that was the start of this."
Quietly, without any real fanfare, the Pioneers and the WHCL have got together and done something meaningful. They've taken a select group of gay hockey players and placed them in a men's league in a province where being rough around the edges is considered a compliment. So far, the partnership is working well on all counts with the Pioneers currently second in their eight-team division.
As for trouble spots, there was just the one last season when the Pioneers made their debut. An opposing player made a homophobic slur that was heard by a referee and reported to the league office. That player was banned for the rest of the season. So as not to antagonize their rivals, the Pioneers acknowledge their orientation in subtle fashion, with a You Can Play patch on the right shoulder of their jersey and with some players using rainbow-coloured tape on their hockey sticks.
"I'm very aware of the traditions in the game having played beer league for the last 10 years," says Mr. Bell, a professional engineer who co-founded the Pioneers with Matt Landsiedel. "I think the biggest thing happening here at WinSport is the zero-tolerance policy. They talk about how we are changing the culture; how certain language just isn't tolerated any more. Chances are it is still probably happening in the locker room but we're setting the precedent that on the ice, you can't do it."
Mr. Bell went to WHCL officials in the summer of 2015 keen to enter a gay men's team. He had previously played for a different team in the league and been abandoned when he began telling people he was gay. The idea was to emulate The Cutting Edges, a Vancouver-based gay men's hockey program initiated in 1994. The Edges play in a men's rec league. Elsewhere in the country, the Montreal Dragons play in a seven-team league where the majority of teams are gay while the Ottawa-Gatineau and Toronto Gay Hockey Associations play within their ranks – in U.S. tournaments, too – and operate as social clubs.
To prevent any gay bashing, the WHCL drew up a zero-tolerance policy for verbal abuse, meaning any derogatory comment aimed at a person's race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation will result in an immediate expulsion from the league.
"We didn't want to put a bull's eye on these guys. We couldn't have them targeted," Kim Jones, WinSport vice-president and legal counsel, says of the Pioneers. "The physical aspect of our game was already covered [by rules]. We wanted to have a hate piece or a verbal piece. So we sat down with Shane [Meahan, WHCL co-ordinator] and we asked, 'How do we maintain our code of conduct? What should the consequences be?' We figured two-, three-, five-game suspensions were a slap on the wrist. Zero tolerance meant for the rest of the season. Every individual has to sign our code of conduct."
Mr. Meahan, who has played in the league, and against the Pioneers, believes the much-used label "hockey culture" stands for some things that need to be changed. No longer is it acceptable to play through a concussion to prove how tough you are. No longer is it right to haze rookie players or spew derogatory comments to get an opposing player off his game. That might happen in the NHL, but the WHCL, with its nearly 2,200 once-a-week players is not the NHL, contrary to what some may think.
At the 2016-17 season-opening meeting with representatives from all 96 teams, players were reminded that the use of hurtful words directed at another player, referees or rink staff would result in a suspension covering the balance of the season. One player asked how he was supposed to change his habits since cussing and name calling was something he did when he got angry.
"For too long in rec sports, people have ignored the names they have called each other because it's hockey; it's okay to do this," Mr. Meahan says. "We wanted to say, 'No, it's not okay.'"
Mr. Bell was saddened when his former team began to alienate him after learning he was gay. Eventually, he was told he wasn't needed. It was what he called indirect homophobia. "It's going into a shower and all the guys leave the shower room. No one talks to you. People will say slurs knowing that you're in the room," he says. "Direct homophobia would be straight at you – 'You're a fag.'"
Starting the Pioneers has been a positive endeavour, and it doesn't end there. Mr. Bell is an ambassador for You Can Play, the LGBTQ-awareness organization backed by several professional organizations and leagues including the Canadian Olympic Committee, Major League Soccer, the CFL and the NHL.
Seeing the support for gay athletes, and hearing the Pioneers were going to start up in 2015, Justin Connelly did something he had been thinking of for a long time – he came out.
"I had known for a while that I was gay and I didn't want to accept it," the Calgary-born Connelly says. "There was fear behind it – how people would accept it and how they would see me. But honestly, since coming out, nobody has seen me differently. I've never experienced any rejection. I've never experienced any torment, whatsoever."
On the ice, Mr. Connelly is a polished skater and the Pioneers' leading scorer. Off the ice, he's the Team Lead at WinSport's skate and hockey school and part of You Can Play's Western Canada board, as is Mr. Bell. The two of them can help shape the future of gay hockey. That aside, the most immediate plan is simply to enjoy playing the game and maybe even change a few attitudes. Those who have followed their progress believe most anything is possible.
"When they first started, they were a group of individuals who came out to play hockey, Mr. Meahan says. "The thing about the Pioneers is, they are a hockey team now."
It's all they really wanted.
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