Wedding photos courtesy of Kukucka Photography.
Going to a Penguins hockey game can be a magical experience. If you had asked me what my 'happy place' was as a kid, I may have told you it was eating nachos with my family at the Igloo. Whether you're a little kid shoving your face with nacho cheese, an adult dissecting every second of the game, or an adult dissecting every second of the game while also shoveling down nacho cheese, being at a Penguins game is something special. It's a community of hockey fans banding together to support their team. As Mike Lange always says, 'you've got to be here to believe it'.
That's why the story I'm about to tell you is going to tug at your heartstrings.
One fan who believed in the Penguins from a very early age is Adam Knoerzer. Despite growing up right outside of Chicago in Blackhawks territory, Adam was always a Penguins supporter. "I was really drawn to players like Alexei Kovalev, his skillset was pretty unmatched. He might not have spoke with the loudest voice, but he did his talking on the scoreboard."
Adam continued to cheer on the Penguins into his adult life and he became a season ticket holder back in 2012. Like many, he split the tickets with some friends. While he doesn't have any notable game day superstitions, he does wear his gold, sparkly shoes to games. As Adam says, "They match the old Vegas gold uniforms very well… It's my way of bringing a little bit of flash to the arena."
While Adam has been a fan for his whole life, being a season ticket holder was the impetus for attending many more games in person. One day, April 1, 2014 to be specific, Adam went to a Penguins game. He expected it to be a fun night out, celebrating his favorite team, but things didn't go as planned.
With his boyfriend out of town, he ended up going to the game alone. He didn't mind going alone, because it was the Penguins. You're never really alone at a Penguins game when you're surrounded by thousands of fans. The Penguins started the game strong with a goal from Chris Kunitz half way through the 1st period. All was well… until it wasn't.
At the beginning of the second period, the game was tied 1-1. Two fans sat down in the seats next to Adam. One of the two directed a comment to Adam about how the fan he showed up with looked 'gay' because of the fit of his t-shirt, and invited Adam to join in on the mockery. Adam calmly stated that he was indeed gay and asked the fan to stop making comments of that nature. Adam focused back on the game (which was also slowly taking a turn for the worse in the 2nd period). Unfortunately, the individual next to him wanted to continue the conversation. His comments toward Adam became increasingly offensive and his body language became aggressive. Adam started to feel uncomfortable and fearful for his safety. He was fearful for his safety in the place he chose spend his night alone, watching the team he loved.
At that point, Adam decided he needed to get away from his seatmates. He started walking out of the building, somewhat defeated by the experience. "I think sometimes for people in my position, the easier thing to do is leave, because it doesn't feel like there's enough support to feel like you have a right to stay and stake your claim."
That night, Adam tweeted, "Anyone who ever says @YouCanPlayTeam isn't necessary can take a look at this incident. I'm so, so sad right now. Angry and sad." He followed up with, "I haven't ever been this angry. I'm leaving."
On his way out of the building, tears in his eyes, Adam called his boyfriend, looking for support and advice. Adam's boyfriend encouraged him to say something to the building staff. At the same time Adam was walking out of the building, I replied to his tweet from the @penguins account, "We're very sorry that you experienced this at our event and do not tolerate any kind of discrimination. We'll DM you for more info." I was just three months into my job tweeting for the Penguins, and this was the first time I had seen anything like this. Despite going to many games over the years, I'd never seen a grand picture of the fan experience quite like watching the @penguins Tweetdeck feed during a game. Was this a thing that happened at my 'happy place', in my hometown, with my fellow fans? I was shocked and disturbed. By the time Adam and I started chatting via direct message, he had taken his boyfriend's advice and told the ushers at the exit what had happened. He was about to leave, but the ushers reassured him that there was no place for any type of discriminatory behavior at the arena. By the time Adam walked up to guest services, he had a new seat reserved for him on the opposite end of the arena. He tweeted back to the @penguins, "Thank you and arena staff for your assistance. It is sincerely appreciated."
I left the arena that night feeling upset. While we had managed to re-seat Adam, there was a bigger problem on our hands. Back in 2014, we hadn't had a Hockey Is For Everyone Night. We hadn't hosted a Pride Night. We didn't go the extra mile to make our game more accepting for all fans. Since that time, we've hosted multiple Hockey is for Everyone nights, with the goal of providing a safe, positive, and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender identity or expression, disability, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status. This year, March 24 was scheduled to be our first Pride Night, separate from the annual Hockey is For Everyone Night. Unfortunately, because of the NHL Pause, the game was not played.
From the front office, to the players, the Penguins are committed to making the game safer and more inclusive for everyone. As Matt Murray said in an interview earlier this season, "I've been the team's ambassador for 'Hockey is For Everyone' for a while… I just want everybody to feel like they're included and part of something bigger. I know hockey has done a lot of progress that mindset, but there's still a long way to go, I think. I just want to help in any way I can."
There's still a long way to go. When Adam made his next trip to the arena after his experience on April 1, 2014, it was difficult for him. Was PPG Paints Arena a place where Adam was safe to be himself without judgement or fear? He wasn't sure. He hadn't seen the Penguins host a Pride Night. He hadn't seen the Penguins take the lead on inclusive programs for LGBTQ+ groups. And you know what? He was right. As Adam and Matt Murray both said, there's still a long way to go.
Adam's experience wasn't the only one of its kind. It may not be the last either. As Adam says, "The most important thing is what happens going forward. It's in nobody's interest to focus too much on the past, but I do think it's important to acknowledge where things have fallen short."
Coach Sullivan always urges Penguins players to 'control the controllables.' That's what the Penguins' front office is committed to doing. The Penguins are going to continue to host Pride Nights. The Penguins are going to assist and listen to fans whether they tweet, mention an issue to an usher, or send a handwritten letter in the mail. The Penguins are committed to make hockey accessible and foster inclusive communities around the game.
But there's more to Adam's story!
This passionate Penguins fan is also 'controlling the controllables'. One year and 10 days after Adam attended the Penguins game on April 1, he got married… at PPG Paints Arena (then known as CONSOL Energy Center). It was one of the first weddings at the arena. Adam formed a new memory at the building, one of his best. He is also making strides to make the game more inclusive in partnership with his husband, Mike Marsico. When Adam started playing hockey with the New York Gay Hockey Association, it changed his life. "The community it brought, the people, I was in my own skin again. We said, 'when we move to Pittsburgh, we're going to put a team together.'" Adam and Mike worked together to form the Pittsburgh Tigers, an open and supportive environment for LGBTQ+ athletes to play and watch hockey. Over the past few years, the Pittsburgh Tigers have done just that.
"We've had people say, 'I thought I had to give up the sport, and now I feel comfortable playing again. That's the most amazing part about it. I can't imagine, as a white gay dude in society who still benefits from a ton of privilege, if it was that hard for me, imagine being a trans-woman who decides to play hockey and then feels shut out because they don't feel comfortable. I'm grateful that we have a very diverse group on that spectrum."
At the Penguins, I've started my work by sharing Adam's thoughts and suggestions internally. The goal is, as Adam says, to make everyone know "you count in the hockey community and that's worth acknowledging." One of Adam's suggestions was to have the Pittsburgh Tigers in to skate at PPG Paints Arena, making them feel like a part of the Pittsburgh hockey community. We hear you, Adam.
Adam, your story has inspired us, so here's your official invitation: The Pittsburgh Tigers are invited to skate at PPG Paints Arena (post-COVID-19 concerns, of course).
We're are also opening the door wider for fans to share their thoughts and ideas, it is Pride Month after all! At the bottom of this article, you will find a suggestion form. We encourage you to share any and all ideas you have to help the Penguins be a more inclusive organization.
To learn more about the Pittsburgh Tigers, visit here.
To learn more about the NHL's Pride initiatives, visit here.
If you have any ideas for how the Penguins can be a more inclusive organization, please share your suggestions here.