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Transgender teenage hockey player embraced by Jr. Sharks

Govaars finds peace, comfort with support from family, coaches, teammates

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / Staff Writer

Marlena Govaars and her husband sent the San Jose Jr. Sharks high school team a nervously lighthearted email in August to discuss a potentially serious roster change.

"Nearly 15 ½ years ago, I announced the birth of my bouncing baby girl, Elisabeth Ann … except it turns out I was wrong, whoops!" Govaars wrote in the email. "He's informed Bob and me that he's a bouncing *BOY*, and has chosen a new name: Elliot Adam."

Elliot Govaars and his family worried and wondered after he came out about whether he could keep playing for the Jr. Sharks girls team and continue in a sport that has become as much a part of his identity as his gender.

"We didn't want to lose hockey, but we also knew it was critical for Elliot to be true to who he is," his mother said. "I thought there was a good chance that as a transgender athlete that he could no longer play on an all-girls team."

The Jr. Sharks coaches and players greeted the Govaars' dramatic announcement with an undramatic response: You can play.

"It was refreshingly uneventful," coach Peter Smails said. "It was like the epitome of Hockey is for Everyone. It wasn't like 'Oh, this is a challenge that can be taken away.' It was sort of 'OK, great, can we get back to hockey? We've got a game to play, we've got practice.'"

Video: Hockey Is For Everyone: Elliot's Story

The San Jose Sharks also embraced Elliot. The NHL team invited him, his teammates and coaches to SAP Center on March 31 for a ceremonial puck drop before the game against the Calgary Flames as part of the NHL's recognition of the Transgender Day of Visibility.

"It was incredible," Elliot said of the puck drop. "I felt a sense of appreciation. It felt like the time I spent getting better at hockey and bonding with this team was all right there on display, and it was very rewarding to me. I saw people standing, applauding. It was beyond anything I experienced before."

Hockey is everything for Elliot these days. It's a sport that fosters a familial feeling among teammates and a haven from the worries of the world.

"Hockey has played such an important part of my life for the past three years," he said in a video produced by the Sharks. "It's really an outlet for all my emotions. Nothing matters on the ice, I can just be out there as a player, playing the game, rather than a boy, or a girl, or anything."

Before telling his mother and stepfather, Bob Wolff, that he was a boy, "Things were pretty black for Elliot … and it was pretty difficult as a parent, looking back, 'Am I being successful when my child is going through something difficult?" said Marlena Govaars, who works in the Sharks human resources department.

When Elliot came out, he and his family fretted about losing hockey. So Marlena and her family gingerly crafted the email in August 2018 -- "procured with a lot of love and thought," Elliot said -- to the Jr. Sharks and then spoke to team officials.

"When Marlena approached me, it was a little bit cryptic at first and I wasn't really sure what I was going to hear from her, but when she brought it to me I was actually really excited," Amanda Long, the Jr. Sharks' girls hockey coordinator, said in the video. "I think it was a great opportunity for us to show what we can do for kids like Elliot making this transition and that we can create a community and support system."

Elliot said he was pleasantly surprised about the reception he received from teammates and their parents.

"At our first team meeting, there were many people who came up to my parents and congratulated them and say how brave I was for coming out and how brave they were for standing behind me like that," Elliot said. "And I've had a couple of my teammates say personally how much it means to them that I came out, too."

After Elliot came out, his parents and coaches saw a different child, a happier person and player.

"Elliot's confidence built over the course of the year," Smails said. "In terms of the team dynamic and hockey, Elliot had a good year."

Today, Marlena Govaars laughs when she looks back at her "I was wrong, whoops" email. She still beams when she recalls the message's last sentence.

"What we didn't get wrong is loving such an amazing young person," she said. "Bob and I are incredibly proud of our smart, talented, caring boy."

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