As revelations of hockey’s toxic culture have spilled onto the country’s front pages over the past few years, it’s been tough, within some communities in Canada, not to feel a sense of I-told-you-so.
“On the one hand, it’s kind of a relief to see that it’s been brought to light,” said Max Denley, a Toronto-based amateur hockey player who identifies as a transgender man, during an interview this week. “But on the other hand, it can be a little bit frustrating, because people have been saying things for years and not being heard, right? If people had listened and heard these things years ago, it could have prevented some of the issues that have happened.”
In the late 1980s, members of the gay community in Toronto who felt unwelcome or even at risk playing hockey in mainstream amateur leagues – all that toxic masculinity and so-called “locker room talk” – set out to build alternatives. Beginning with outdoor pickup games advertised in the gay community newspaper Xtra, they slowly amassed a corps of like-minded players who just wanted an environment free of discrimination.
In 1993, they invited a team from a burgeoning gay hockey league in Montreal to come to Toronto for a friendly match on Thanksgiving weekend. The timing – during a family oriented holiday when many would feel isolated – was intentional. “There were people who weren’t welcome back home with their families, because they were gay,” said Matt Hicks, the tournaments director for the Toronto Gay Hockey Association, which grew out of those early efforts. “They faced discrimination.”
As the gay hockey scene in both cities expanded, the match became a full-blown tournament that alternated each year between Toronto and Montreal, sometimes drawing in teams from around the world. This weekend, it will unfold in three rinks across Toronto: York University’s Canlan Sports complex, Varsity Arena on the University of Toronto campus, and Toronto Metropolitan University’s Mattamy Arena, formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens. Sponsors include Scotiabank, Somersby beverages, and the health care provider Freddie.
Now dubbed the Canada Cup, this weekend’s tournament – the first in Toronto since 2018, because of the pandemic – will bring together 18 teams from Toronto, Montreal, New York, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Boston and Albany, as well as two teams comprising transgender players from both the United States and Canada, which are making their Canadian debut.
While the transgender teams – known as Team Trans Blue and Team Trans Pink – comprise transgender players and those who identify as non-binary, traditionally none of the teams in the TGHA make any distinctions between the gender identities or sexual orientation of their players. In fact, the league was formed with the core value of no discrimination.
“We didn’t really want to start a league that was just gay-only,” said Robert Thompson, a co-founder of the TGHA, who still plays in the league. “We wanted to do the opposite of what was happening in the men’s leagues at the time, and just have a league that wouldn’t discriminate.
“So you could be straight, but you can’t discriminate against anything.”
Transgender players have always been welcome in the TGHA, but now they have a team – well, two teams, created just for the tournament – to call their own.
While the quality of hockey in the TGHA and the Canada Cup is often high – many players are former NCAA or Canadian university alumnae – the transgender teams are the only ones who usually boast any former pro players: Harrison Browne, who played in the NWHL and Jessica Platt, who played in the CWHL, though neither is playing this weekend.
Denley, who played for Acadia University and will be captain of Team Trans Pink, says he has found it especially welcoming to play on a team with other transgender players. “When I’ve played in the TGHA, I’ve often been the only trans player on my team,” he said. “And people have always been really accepting and really kind about that, but there’s still difference of experience. For trans players, dressing rooms can be a super-vulnerable space. There’s often questions – even well-meaning questions – about our experiences, about our bodies, things like that, that maybe take away from being able to play hockey and focus on hockey.”
He added: “Dressing rooms I think can be one of the most difficult parts of sports for trans folks. So, being able to have that space, where you’re surrounded by people who share that experience with you, trusting that people aren’t going to get your pronouns wrong – you know, all those little things that a lot of athletes probably don’t have to think about when they go to play a sport, but are constantly on a trans person’s mind – it kind of levels the playing field. It’s like, ‘Now we get to go play a sport and also not have to worry about those things.’”
Thompson says that, as he was struggling with his own sexuality in the 1980s, the environment of the locker rooms he’d grown up in as a hockey player in the north end of Toronto, “probably delayed my coming out.” But once he left, and began to build a gay-friendly space that still involved the sport that he loved, “it saved my life, basically. It gave me friends that were similar to me. It gave me a safe place to play.”
While it’s been a long road, he believes things are getting better in the sport. In addition to the TGHA, he now plays in a straight league. And while homophobic slurs used to be a fact of life on the ice and off, organizers nowadays will quickly act on incidents that are brought to their attention. “That never would have happened 35 years ago,” he said.
In fact, things seemed to be getting so much better, especially among younger players who are growing up in an environment that is broadly more accepting than the one he experienced as a young gay man, about 10 years ago Thompson began to worry the TGHA was aging out.
“But since then I’ve learned that’s not the case, that there is still a hockey culture out there,” he said. “I have one player on my team who said that he stopped playing because of the homophobic slurs when he was growing up. And he’s in his mid-20s. He hadn’t played in years, and now he’s playing in the TGHA and he loves it – because there’s none of that [discrimination].”
“So, society has evolved, for sure. But there’s still a ways to go.”