This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2023

The perfect assist

How the NHL helped me transition

Thomas O'Donnell

Illustration by Francois Vigneault

I’m at a party trying to join in a conversation with some men who are older than me, around their mid-thirties to forties. The conversation topics are bachelor parties, home ownership, and sports. I contribute maybe 10 sentences the whole night.

At the end of the evening, I figure this needs to change. I’m two and a half years into transitioning and it’s one of my first times meeting men I didn’t know pretransition. In order to do better going forward, I pick the easiest of topics to understand—sports. To narrow it down further, I go with hockey as it’s in season at the time, and there’s an NHL team in my city.

In the weeks and months that follow, my new obsession with hockey is puzzling to people who’ve known me for a long time. But by this point in my transition, it has become clear to me that weather conversations can only go so far. When I’m trying to befriend men, I worry about not fitting in and not being able to pass—to be seen as the gender I am. I’m afraid that other men will see me as less than or treat me with suspicion. It might seem like I’m leaning into stereotypes when I make the conscious choice to love hockey, but at the core is also anxiety around my safety in unfamiliar environments as I transition and embark on a new life chapter.

While being into hockey, both the live sport and the underlying stats, begins as a pragmatic thing, it quickly changes my life. I feel the need to learn everything immediately, lest someone test me on my knowledge: player history, team history, league history, and the endless, ever-changing stats any true fan would know. But being very, very into something is sort of my natural state, and I am shocked to see how well hockey fits into my brain, almost like it was always supposed to be there. It isn’t long until I find myself staying up too late editing a Wikipedia page for a player who died before I was born. It dawns on me at that point that I am actually a hockey fan.

Now I have something to chat about with nearly everyone. Co-workers have started getting my goat for how bad the Vancouver Canucks are doing; people on public transportation see my team colours and rib me for how bad the Canucks are doing; my optometrist gently mocks me for… how bad the Canucks are doing. I feel like part of something bigger, and I like it. To some acquaintances I’d previously struggled to connect with, hockey has become that thing they remember about my life. They ask me for updates as a way of continuing a relationship that otherwise would have little footing. And I discover there really is nothing quite like the electricity of a crowd—feeling the same emotions as 18,000 or so of my new closest friends.

One of the most delightful surprises about getting into hockey is it makes me feel like a kid again—the kid I didn’t get to be in my actual childhood. When I was young, every boy I knew played hockey and talked about it non-stop. In my mind, hockey and the gender category of “boy” were one and the same. Getting into hockey now, as I transition, feels like reclaiming the all-Canadian boyhood I never had.

As I immerse myself deeper into the world of hockey, sometimes I fantasize about what it would’ve been like to play the game as a child. I think about growing up a boy on Vancouver Island, going to the Fuller Lake Arena for early morning practices, experiencing the camaraderie of a team.

A big part of being trans can be grappling with the “what ifs.” What if I had been born X? What if I had transitioned earlier? When you’re alone with your thoughts, it can become an all-consuming game, running through simulations where everything was good the whole time, and you didn’t have to suffer this long. But inevitably, when I go down that path, I reach the conclusion it’s not a mental exercise worth doing: it plays into gender stereotypes and disregards my actual personality. When I think harder about it, I realize I would have sucked at hockey. My childhood neighbour used to leave for hockey practice at 5 a.m. and I had never been awake that early in my life. I hate waking up early, I hate long bus rides, and, quite frankly, I have no athletic talent—all things that wouldn’t have been any different had I been a boy my whole life.

Still, I’m glad I get to experience hockey now from a distance, finding camaraderie in viewing rather than participating. Sometimes, my hockey obsession is less about connecting with straight cis men, however, and more about looking at hunky guys. Take that time I’m sitting at a bar with a friend and there’s a Canucks player being interviewed on TV. I find him so handsome I can no longer pay attention to the conversation I’m having. But I digress…

Getting into hockey is not all a smooth path to coming into my own as a trans man. Soon I’m grappling with the toxic masculinity associated with the sport. Sexual assault allegations at both the junior and professional level, acts of racism, and reports of homophobic slurs surround the game. And the sport—in organized leagues and in fandom—supports, sustains, and fosters a culture of homophobia, aggression, and violence against women.

I remember when the Seattle Kraken announced their new mascot, Buoy. Buoy is a troll with long blue hair, bushy eyebrows, and an earring. I had the misfortune of coming across a tweet making fun of Buoy for being… trangender? The long hair (clearly hockey hair) and the earring (clearly an homage to Auston Matthews’s earrings) were being used to make fun of trans people. Personally, I love Buoy. I didn’t tell anyone else about this, I just sat with it and felt bad, nervous to make a retort for fear of being mocked.

Another time, opposing fans are being so obnoxious at a game that we can’t hear what the referee is saying on the ice. They are bragging and taunting while their team is winning the whole time. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to scream in public, like ever. After a game where my team, the Canucks, lose (of course), we all pour out into the concourse to leave. The hall turns into a mosh pit as two fans start yelling and shoving each other. Police officers need to step in to break up the fight. This is a side of masculinity I’ve rarely seen in real life, only on TV or well, on the ice. I wonder that evening if this is the endgame of passing; if this is what it takes—being a terror in public—to show the world you are a man? I also wonder if I even want acceptance by such obnoxious people.
In the months to come, some hockey scandals are unfolding in the media. My roommates and I sit one evening and discuss the latest horrifying updates on Kyle Beach’s allegations of sexual assault at the hands of a coach; of the sexual assault trial of Jake Virtanen; of the Hockey Canada story, which hides so many awful elements including multiple accusations of group-led sexual assault and a secret fund used to pay out sexual-assault survivors. Reading the news, it’s unfathomable to think of how some men can commit violence on that level and get off so lightly, thanks to a system that views their crimes more as an inconvenience than something that needs to be eradicated from hockey culture.

I’m not naive, but it’s frightening to be reminded of how evil some men can be. What men using their power and strength can do. In my quest to be more passable, to make myself more in line with heteronormative ideas of gender for the comfort of others, I’ve been reminded time and time again of the harms of traditional masculinity. Learning to enjoy hockey as an adult means I need to think critically about what I like about the sport and culture and choose only those parts to add to my vision of masculinity.

While my masculinity brings me joy, reckoning with the bad things men get a free pass to do in hockey and in our wider culture actually turns out to be a vital part of transitioning for me. While trying to debate other fans on Reddit on these topics may be a futile task, speaking up on issues that are important to me is something I won’t give up for the sake of passing.

These days, I’m not always having the types of discussions I thought I’d be having around the water cooler with my co-workers when I first got into hockey. But ultimately it feels more fruitful than just trading stats. Transitioning doesn’t mean I need to compromise my long-held values. I love hockey, and I look forward to bringing more people with me into my hockey fandom. The sport will win when everyone is welcome.

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