The rink can often be an escape for recreational hockey players – a place to unwind while breaking a sweat with your buddies.
But for Calgarian Mike Bell, it became a place he no longer felt welcome. After his new team learned he was gay, there was suddenly no room on their roster for him.
“It kind of came out of the blue, to be honest,” he said, adding he was “disappointed, frustrated that there’s still those kind of feelings around hockey and teammates.”
Instead of quitting WinSport’s beer league and the game he loved, he saw it as an opportunity to create a team welcoming members from the gay community.
“There are probably guys that had very similar situations that I had that didn’t have a team to play on anymore, so I thought I’d start one up,” Bell said.
With that, the Pioneers – Calgary’s first gay hockey team – was born. Rounding up enough teammates to fill the roster was easy.
Pioneers defenceman Michael Velcic saw it as a chance to play hockey and not feel like you’re treated differently.
“A lot of players grew up with hesitations or always tried to hide who they were, adapting to their team because they didn’t want to be honest or true about who they were. They didn’t want to compromise their opportunity to play,” Velcic said. “I find this is as a great team where you don’t have those concerns or worries or those stresses.”
The Pioneers are also competitive. As of mid-January, they were first in their league with a lot of momentum behind them.
“Everyone’s in the same boat. We’re all gay, we’re all here to play hockey,” Velcic said.
Gay hockey teams, even leagues, have already popped up across Canada.
The Pioneers say there is no special treatment and you don’t have to be gay to play on the team.
“We’re like any other team. There is no difference. We all go for beers after. We all joke around. It’s just a good group of guys,” Bell said.
The team is helping change the culture around Canada’s game, landing a major sponsorship with Molson Canadian and even influenced the introduction of WinSport’s “no tolerance policy.”
“They don’t want to be known as ‘the openly gay hockey team.’ They want to be known as ‘the Pioneers: a hockey team that plays in the Coors Banquet Division of the WinSport hockey league.’ They want to play competitive hockey every night,” said Shane Meahan, WinSport’s hockey league manager.
Other teams have been respectful and there have been no issues on or off the ice the since the Pioneers came together two years ago. That feeling of comfort has them making strides in and outside the game.
“The improvement on an individual level of each individual player has been exponential, as well as how they’ve come together as a team,” Meahan said. “There’s still an old-school mentality when it comes to hockey.”
READ MORE: Is the NHL ready for an openly gay player?
Changing that mentality in Calgary is what the Pioneers continue to do – one game at a time.
“It’s 2017,” Bell said. “I don’t feel like we should be hiding our sexual orientation. You should be comfortable in any situation.
“We’re really building this community of support around this locker room hockey setting.”