Ice, Ice Babies
A peek beneath the masks and pads of the New York Gay Hockey Association
By Mitch Rustad
photography by Johnny Rozsa
In Empire Magazine, Spring 2000.
"I'll take beginners and go shopping for everything. I'll walk them through the whole thing." Jeff Kagan can size you up in seconds and point you toward just the right pants and gloves, but he's not your average personal shopper. The 31 year-old TV exec is the co-director of the New York City Gay Hockey Association (NYCGHA), Gotham's first gay ice hockey league. If you've ever fantasized about lacing up your skates, donning shoulder pads, a helmet and face mask (how butch!), and hitting the ice, then Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers just became your own little piece of heaven.
Kagan sees the league as an opportunity for frustrated jocks everywhere to find a healthy, non-threatening athletic outlet, something all-too-often missing from gay athletes' high school or college experience. "A lot of people stopped playing because they didn't feel like they belonged," says Kagan.
That's exactly what happened to John Spear, 30, National Field Director for the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) by day, high-sticker by night. Spear played Division III hockey for Williams College in Williamstown, MA. "A big part of my life growing up was playing hockey and lacrosse, but it wasn't uncommon for a coach to come in between periods and say, 'You're playing like a bunch of sissies.' That was supposed to motivate us, but for me it really hit home," says Spear. He went on to coach high school hockey for several years in Lake Placid, NY, ("on the very ice where the U.S. hockey team beat the Russians in 1980") but ultimately quit. "I thought I couldn't be a jock and also be gay," he says. "That was a sad fact of life for me at the time. Discovering this league is the best thing that's happened to me in years." And, in fact, he's one of the league's standouts.
The NYCGHA holds practices on Saturday nights and encourages everyone -- men and women, ice virgin to ice queen -- to join in the fun. The association is comprised of three teams: the NY Lions (the home team), the Rockets (home team No. 2, the expansion team) and the Ugly Americans (the travel team). Already, more than 40 people have signed up, including hockey devotees from every possible background: corporate executive to Broadway producer to police officer -- even a few former college stars.
Kagan's happy to help novices get outfitted with the required equipment: hemet with a mask, hockey pants, elbow guards, knee and shoulder pads, hockey gloves, stick and skates. Obviously, playing hockey is not inexpensive. All of the above should run you about $600 and the fee for a 10-week practice is $250 (a single trial practice will run you $25).
You will get some bang for your buck, however. When you step on the ice, you'll be in the hands of the league's top-notch coach, former Yale hockey player, Bobby Cronin. His practices focus heavily on skating fundamentals and basic hockey positions, then feature a scrimmage in the last half-hour. There's no checking -- i.e., no slamming someone into the boards a la the NHL -- in the NYCGHA, but those aren't special "gay rules." "There's no checking in any of the amateur leagues," says Kagan. "The only difference between gay hockey and straight hockey is the bars we go to after the game."
"There are some stereotypes in hockey," say Spear, "lots of fights and people losing their teeth -- and on its worst day there might be a little bit of that, but hockey is a very fast, highly skilled, competitive and fun sport. That's what I like about it. It must be something special if I'm willing to give up every Saturday night and lug around a 60-pound hockey bag."
For more details and a practice schedule, [ED: visit the NYCGHA Schedule].