As a closeted gay man playing in a Montreal men's hockey league in the early 1990s, Giroux said he never experienced the homophobic banter and slurs in games or in the locker room that other LGBTQ+ players endured. But he still felt he wasn't able to be his true self in a game that he loves.
"I had a boyfriend all these years. But I was a good hockey player, so straight guys, they didn't have a clue back then. Gay hockey players were nonexistent, invisible," Giroux said. "Part of me was always hidden. I was sick of it and I said, 'I'd like to be in a league where I can be all open with my private life and everything.'"
Giroux joined the Montreal Dragons, a 29-year-old league that provides a fun, competitive and safe space for LGBTQ+ players to be themselves.
"I think it's very important for young gay players to know the league exists," said Giroux, a 58-year-old center who's a veteran of more than 350 Dragons games. "To come into our league with no prejudice, no judgment, nothing, and to make friends in the community is great."
The league was founded in 1991 by two gay men who loved playing hockey but didn't feel at home on their straight team because of homophobic locker room talk, said Andreas Lazanis, the Dragons' vice president for public affairs.
The men took out an ad in a magazine distributed in Montreal's gay community that said, "If anyone wants to play hockey and you're gay, we want to play hockey."
"They found a few players and made a team they felt more comfortable playing with, and it went from there," Lazanis said.
Today, the Dragons league has about 44 players on four teams that play on Friday evenings. There are about 50 players available on a callup roster. About half of the players are straight.
"We have some people who want to play hockey on a Friday night, they were checking schedules online and saw us," said Lazanis, a defenseman in the league. "It's just hockey for them. It's a gay league, but they want to play hockey and they don't care who they play with. They just see us as hockey players. We love seeing that."
When the league started, teams were chosen by players throwing their sticks onto center ice and separated into squads. Teams are now chosen more methodically; Lazanis said skill level and experience are taken into consideration.
"We've had some guys who were major league who were incredible players," he said. "Teams are chosen, and they rotate because you might be playing with a stud one year or you're angry with a guy on your team. But you might be playing with that same guy the next year. Everybody stays friendly and fun, even though there is some shouldering a bit, but that's hockey too.
"The quality of the games surprises people. When they come, they're, like, 'This is real hockey,'" he said. "That's something else we hear sometimes that with a bunch of gay guys on the ice that it's going to be a bit more soft, skill wise. Then they see us and say, 'I want to join you.'"
Players from the Dragons have competed internationally. Giroux captained Dragons teams that finished first at the 1994 Gay Games in New York, second in 1998 in Amsterdam and first in 2002 in Sydney.
Then there are the rivalry games against teams from the Toronto Gay Hockey Association at the Canada Cup LGBT hockey tournament, which rotates annually between the two cities.
This year's tournament was supposed to be in Toronto but was canceled due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, Lazanis said.
"We used to send two teams from Montreal and the final of the tournament was always the two teams from Montreal because Toronto was not very good or well-organized," Giroux said. "Of course, over the years that's changed. Toronto has boomed, the city became bigger and the hockey grew very well. Things have reversed a bit, where we would go there, and they would have better teams than us."
The pandemic pause has kept the Dragons from playing their regular Friday night games, but it hasn't dampened their spirit for the game.
"We sent out an email a few weeks back that the season was canceled because of arena closures and that if anybody wanted a refund for the games that they didn't play instead of a credit for next year," Lazanis said. "Nobody wanted money back. Everyone wants to come back."
Teammates are staying in touch virtually, and the league is holding events to keep players engaged, such as Lazanis speaking with former NHL player Georges Laraque on You Can Play's Instagram on June 12 about the security and inclusion of all people in hockey.
But, Lazanis said, the Dragons players can't wait to get back on the ice Friday nights to "play, have a beer and relax."