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LGBTQ hockey stays up late to break down barriers

Updated January 20, 2020 - 6:41 pm

It was going on midnight Saturday, or at least seemed like it, and the Zamboni drivers at City National Arena were stifling yawns. The third period of a youth hockey game at the Golden Knights’ practice rink was just starting.

Another game scheduled for the other rink had yet to begin. This one looked much less organized than the kids.

The right wing wore a Black Sabbath jersey with No. 666 on back. The left wing’s jersey and socks did not match.

One of the goalies was dressed as Captain America; the other one’s hair was the color of the faceoff circles. Vegas Strong and You Can Play stickers adorned the back of his helmet.

The blade of his goalie’s stick was covered with rainbow tape.

The semifinals of the Sin City Classic were, at long last, almost under way.

The Sin City Classic is billed as the largest annual domestic LGBTQ sports festival. This was its 13th year. More than 8,000 participants in 24 sports, ranging in alphabetical order from basketball to wrestling, competed.

None, it can be assumed, were as bleary-eyed as the hockey players.

Open to all

Hockey had one of the smallest turnouts — four teams comprised of 14 players each.

John Hunt, the tournament director and one of the goalies, said before the Golden Knights arrived in town you could secure ice time at a decent hour. Championship games that start at 12:10 a.m. tend to limit participation, he said.

The teams were skating for the Sin City Cup — a scale replica of the Stanley Cup that somebody had purchased at a garage sale. The chalice was festooned with Mardi Gras beads, what appeared to be a kerchief and rainbow streamers. The cup itself had rust stains. You wouldn’t want to consume anything from it, but that’s not the idea behind the Sin City Classic hockey tournament.

“We’re here to play hockey,” said the Toronto-born Hunt who longs for the day the Maple Leafs will skate around the ice holding aloft the real Stanley Cup, a ritual last performed in 1967 before he was born. “We want people to be accepted and feel accepted in the locker rooms, when they’re on the ice and when they’re on the bench.”

What makes the Sin City Classic unique is that it is inclusive to all: Lesbian. Gay. Bisexual. Transgender. Queer or Questioning. Straight. San Jose Sharks fans.

Beginners, intermediates, advanced.

Red hair, gray hair, no hair.

Doesn’t matter. Everybody is welcome regardless of sexual orientation, NHL loyalties, skill level or age.

Tale of the tape

Brynne Van Putten, 61, skated with an all-female forward line for a team called the Flamingos (an homage to the Las Vegas hotel-casino in which the players were staying). She estimated the percentage of LGBTQ to straight players to be 60-40.

One of her teammates was her straight brother, Jon.

“The LA Blades were the first LGBT team in 1985, and we’ve grown,” she said. “We’ve got three teams, and there are probably about 20 clubs with (multiple) teams across the country.”

But the game as played by the LGBTQ community and those who support it has retained pond-hockey charm: Choose-up sides, drop the puck, have fun.

“We have a father, a son and a daughter — they’re not gay, but they play in the tournament,” Hunt said. “They know they’re going to get to play together, which isn’t normal because of the difference in age.”

Hunt said progress is being made. Society is more accepting now. Last year, a transgender hockey pioneer named Harrison Browne dropped the ceremonial first puck before a Rangers-Hurricanes game at Madison Square Garden.

Every NHL team now holds a Pride Night game — the Golden Knights had theirs in October against Boston. Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb was Pride Night ambassador. Marc-Andre Fleury used the rainbow tape on his goalie’s stick during warmups.

Last season, New Jersey Devils rookie Kurtis Gabriel left the rainbow stripes on the top of his stick when the game started in support of a lesbian couple who are friends with his wife. He went onto the ice with rainbow colors and scored the first goal of his NHL career.

The LGBTQ community was ecstatic.

So were straight fans of the Devils, who scored the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference last season.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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