What the Puck? Gay Hockey Draws Mixed Membership
COLUMBUS, Ohio - For a moment, the gay slur muttered by a hockey opponent during a game last year stung like an exposed limb against ice.
"It was directed at one of our straight players," recalled Lloyd Newman, president of the Ohio Mayhem and its umbrella organization, Gay Hockey Ohio.
"It was like 'Hello? Obviously, you don't have gaydar.'??"
The epithet, in retrospect, seems more comical than offensive to the Mayhem, a Columbus team whose roster is decidedly mixed: some male, some female; some gay, others straight.
Team members neither make a public issue of their personal lives nor hide them. Once the puck drops, they retain a singular focus.
"It's all about the game," said Doug Massey, a 35-year-old who co-founded Mayhem and plays wing.
"You're out there to play and win."
Just like the 170 other squads in the Chiller Adult Hockey League.
Just like Rick Nash or R.J. Umberger - National Hockey League stars who, among others, have recently spoken out via YouTube as part of a campaign to erase homophobia in sports.
And just like players on the Ohio State men's hockey team, which is to host the Mayhem during a Jan.?11 game at Value City Arena when the Buckeyes face Michigan State.
The event will double as the second annual Pride Night, a collaborative gathering that last year featured taped remarks from athletic director Gene Smith and several OSU players advocating tolerance and respect on and off the ice.
The collective symbolic thaw is encouraging to Mayhem participants and other athletes.
Still, maintained Newman, 41: "We don't wear a rainbow flag on our shoulder.
"We don't have to."
Until two years ago, Newman - a Reynoldsburg resident - hadn't tried an organized sport since childhood.
Early attempts had scarred him.
"There were times, even in playing T-ball, I would actually have direct family members go, 'You run like a sissy; you throw like a wimp,'??" said Newman, who grew up in Jacksonville, Fla.
"Once you're past a certain age, the opportunity to get in on an entry level is gone."
Some of his Mayhem teammates had also avoided sports, fearing that their sexual orientation might carry too much of a stigma.
Would such an admission find them shunned on the field? What about in the locker room?
The prospect of acceptance attracted Ryan Jones to the Mayhem, where he has played wing since the team's 2005 inception.
Never mind that hockey is far more daunting than a pickup game of, say, soccer or basketball.
"It was way outside my comfort zone," said the 41-year-old Jones, a "hockey virgin."
"I love the team atmosphere, the camaraderie."
Helping to champion the cause more widely in recent months has been You Can Play, an inclusivity campaign introduced last year in part by former Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke - whose younger brother, Brendan, came out as gay in 2009 while serving as a student manager for the men's hockey team at Miami University.
Brendan died in 2010 in a car crash. The siblings' father - Brian Burke, former general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs - co-founded You Can Play, which in April partnered with the NHL.
Wade Davis, a former player in the National Football League who became executive director of the effort in the summer, will lead a moderated talk the afternoon of OSU Pride Night.
"I grew up with very few images of gay people on TV - and zero of them playing sports," said the 36-year-old Davis, who remained closeted until last year.
"You have so many players who are allies now."
Which explains why You Can Play efforts aren't limited to hockey: NFL and Major League Soccer initiatives are also in motion.
On-the-ice insults such as the one that Newman recounted are rare.
The most common reaction that Mayhem players field after revealing their team's open-minded affiliation, he said, is that of surprise.
Other efforts help counter obscurity. The team appears each year in the city's pride parade and has raised money to benefit a community center for gay youths and a summer camp that hosts children affected by HIV/AIDS.
Awareness is likely to spread as more high-profile professional athletes publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation the way former Columbus Crew midfielder Robbie Rogers, pro basketball player Jason Collins and Olympic diver Tom Daley of Britain have in recent months.
A 2011 study by sociologist Eric Anderson - who in 1993 made headlines as the country's first openly gay high-school coach, in southern California - found that young gay athletes confronted far less homophobia compared with their counterparts of a decade earlier.
"Attitudes among this generation are changing," said Anderson, today a professor at the University of Winchester in Britain.
The Mayhem's roster seemingly underscores as much: About half of the team's 22 players are heterosexual.
"I'm happy to support them," said 29-year-old defenseman Clay Irwin, who is straight.
"There's not a reason for anyone to second-guess themselves."
More prohibitive for hockey players of any persuasion, perhaps, are the sport's costs: several hundred dollars for basic skates and gear, plus annual per-player rink fees of $600.
And even rec play requires a commitment, as the Mayhem competes year-round in a non-checking league, with games late each Thursday night.
Renting ice time for practices is too costly.
Although the team permits any adult to partake, its collective skill has improved in recent years; a second Gay Hockey Ohio squad might form to accommodate newcomers.
The Mayhem's latest schedule ended in December, with the team posting a 4-6 record. Its shot at playoff glory fell short through a single-elimination defeat.
Victory, however, isn't measured solely in the number of goals.
"Out there on the ice, that's the equalization point," Newman said. "It doesn't matter how you swing, so long as you can play."