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Pride

New York City Gay Hockey Association celebrating Pride Month

Group says sport provides 'sense of community,' provide support during pandemic

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

New York City Gay Hockey Association players aren't on the ice and won't be marching in a massive annual Pride parade this month due to rink closures and event cancelations related to the coronavirus.

But that hasn't stopped members of the 21-year-old association from celebrating Pride Month and showing their love for a sport that provides competitive and social outlet for some in New York's LGBTQ+ community.

"Hockey is all about the team, and people joined the NYCGHA so that they could have a sense of the community both in terms of their identity to but also focus on hockey," said Steve Lorenzo, NYCGHA's board secretary. "In a time when people are being isolated, it's very, very helpful to have a team you can reach out to and have a Zoom chat during your game time on a Sunday afternoon or have a chat via another mechanism where you and your teammates can continue to chirp each other and make it feel like there's a sense of support while all this is going on."

The NHL is observing Pride Month throughout June and Pride Day on June 26 by featuring stories across the League's media channels, highlighting people and organizations such as NYCGHA that use hockey to build stronger connections.

For Pride Day, the NHL is inviting fans, players, coaches, broadcasters, mascots, referees and the entire hockey community to wear NHL gear, along with the Pride rainbow, and share pictures using #HockeyIsForEveryone.

The League has also added a resource section on NHL.com to make it easier for members of the LGBTQ+ community and their supporters to check the status of Pride activities in all NHL markets and connect with local LGBTQ+ hockey organizations.

NYCGHA, which has more than 200 members and eight teams, is commemorating Pride Month by helping those in need during the pandemic. It's holding an online fundraiser to support the Boxers NYC Food Pantry and Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, which provides health care to New York's LGBTQ+ community regardless of ability to pay.

But the association's players have also taken the time during hockey's pause to stay connected to the game and to each other. They recently participated in a Zoom chat with Ngozi Ukazu, author and illustrator of "Check, Please," a popular web comic and graphic novel about a gay former figure skating champion from Georgia who loves baking pies and playing hockey on his northern college's team.

"It was a chance to think about something that wasn't in the news right now," Lorenzo said. "We ended up not talking very much about her book. We ended up talking about hockey and community and the whole notion of hockey family and how important it is to have that right now."

Ukazu was so impressed by the group and the conversation that she continued what was supposed to be a 45-minute chat well beyond an hour.

"It wasn't like, 'Oh, we're on a Zoom call.' It was like, 'This is our organization, we want to talk about the history of this, why it's important this environment exists for queer, gay, lesbian hockey players," said Ukazu, who lives in Texas. "I was thankful that they were ready to be vulnerable with a total stranger who doesn't play hockey to talk about why this is so important and the pain that they've endured from not being traditional hockey players."

The New York City Gay Hockey Association was founded on July 29, 1999, by two Jeffs, Kagan and Minck, closeted men who were teammates on the same New York adult league hockey team. Neither knew the other was gay; they learned about each other after Kagan played in a Toronto Gay Hockey Association tournament in 1996 and wrote about the experience in the association's newsletter.

Minck saw the newsletter post and asked Kagan if he was the author.

"I said 'Yep, it's me,'" Kagan said. "So he goes, 'Oh my God, I'm gay also.'"

After Minck attended the TGHA tournament in 1997 with Kagan, the two decided the time was right to create a similar organization in New York. Minck placed ads on the internet and in local magazines in inviting people to the NYGHA's first meeting at the LGBT Center of New York.

"We had six people show up, which was kind of surprising, but we were happy to have those six people," Kagan said. "We put them to work as our ambassadors. We said, 'You've got to find a few people who are interested just like we are.' The next time we had a meeting there were nine or 10 people, and it just started to grow from there."

It has grown into one of the largest LGBTQ+ associations in North America and has helped shift the perception of gay hockey players from "a creature of myth," Kagan said, to regulars on the ice.

"The benefit is for people who played hockey previously in their life or are new to the game," Lorenzo said. "It's essential to have a space where people feel they can join in and not be judged on the list of attributes that they may have been judged on in previous athletic experiences, whether it was trying to play in high school or college or the kid who was always picked last in gym class because they were different."

The association has also helped change attitudes. Kagan remembers more than a decade ago when New York Rangers games at Madison Square Garden didn't feel like a welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ people.

Fast forward to March 5, 2020. Fans inside the Garden cheered as Alphonso David, a nationally-recognized LGBTQ civil rights attorney and the first person of color to be president of the Human Rights Campaign, dropped the ceremonial first puck under a rainbow-hued center ice scoreboard before the Rangers faced the Washington Capitals on Pride Night.

Earlier that day, NYCGHA members scrimmaged on Garden ice, with former Rangers defensemen Ron Greschner and Tom Laidlaw serving as honorary captains.

"It's incredible how far we've come," Kagan said. "It's not something that I ever, ever imagined the first time we had a meeting, that the New York Rangers would play with us and play at Madison Square Garden."

By creating a welcoming environment, the association has attracted straight players, who now account for about 70 percent of NYCGHA's 257 members.

"The reason for that is the people that come to play with us they see they we're a great group of people, that we play fair, that we're very organized, we have great jerseys," he said. "I supposed they wanted to support the LGBT community and that was a way to do it, by playing amongst us."

The NYCGHA has also spawned similar associations across the country including the Madison Gay Hockey Association in Wisconsin, the largest association in the United States.

Patrick Farabaugh, who founded the MGHA in 2006, began playing hockey in the New York association in 2002 at a time he "was struggling very hard to find my way into my community."

"I certainly call it a lifeline," Farabaugh said of NYCGHA and other associations. "I didn't know how to play hockey before, I barely even ice skated in my life before. But I knew I needed some kind of safe social connection to grow as a person, and if I had to learn how to learn hockey to have access to that, then it looks like I was going to become a hockey player."

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