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Trans youth wins stick-handling session with Canada NHL star through Pride trivia

Ten-year-old Cullen Kotarba from London, Ont., began playing hockey three years ago.
Ten-year-old Cullen Kotarba from London, Ont., began playing hockey three years ago. Jason Plant/Provided

What began as a virtual game of trivia eventually led to a young hockey player meeting one of his hockey heroes.

Ten-year-old Cullen Kotarba from London, Ont., began playing hockey three years ago.

He won a stick-handling session with Canadian professional hockey player Kurtis Gabriel through The Pride is Right Trivia Contest, a weekly online trivia event in support of two local programs aimed towards alleviating food insecurities for those in London’s LGBTQ2S+ communities.

Read more: 40th Pride London Festival launches virtually

The young hockey player says he’s lucky to have a strong support system from his family, friends and peers at school, but not everyone is on-board with his transition.

“I cut my hair and I started getting boy clothes. … Some people were surprised, and some people said ‘OK'”

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“It was a good decision,” Kotarba said. “I’m happier.”

Gabriel spoke with 980 CFPL’s Mike Stubbs on London Live earlier this week.

“Karen (Simpson), the host of the trivia, reached out to me over Instagram… and I figured, how can I help?” said Gabriel.

“How can I give a prize or be involved somehow with my strengths, which I guess is playing hockey. I’m still trying to get better at playing the game myself, so why not (help) someone out and see if they love it?”

Gabriel, 27, has played for the Minnesota Wild and New Jersey Devils in the National Hockey League, as well as the Owen Sound Attack in the Ontario Hockey League.

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10-year-old Cullen Kotarba (left) and professional hockey player Kurtis Gabriel (right)
10-year-old Cullen Kotarba (left) and professional hockey player Kurtis Gabriel (right). Jason Plant/Provided

He was recently tagged as the “Gold Standard” of LGBTQ2S+ allies in hockey.

In 2019, the hockey star taped pride tape on his hockey stick for the first time before a game against the Montreal Canadiens while playing for the Devils.

“I scored a goal. … It was the biggest goal in my life, but it was also a big win for inclusion, and since then, I’ve used it on my stick every game.”

“That’s my biggest message — people can get out and help communities that are not being treated right.”

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Simpson, a personal injury lawyer at Lerners Law and the host of The Pride is Right Trivia Contest, told 980 CFPL 10-year-old Kotarba has played House League at Oakridge Arena for the past three years.

“I know that there is a very high percentage of youth that drop out of sports including hockey when they get into their teenage years, or when hockey becomes that much more competitive, and they don’t have the same sense of inclusion that they would’ve had when they were younger,” said Simpson.

“This is an opportunity for Cullen to show off his skills, but also get some reinforcement that he’s accepted.

“It could be a really transformative experience for him.”

Pride Month: Celebrating LGBTQ Comedians
Pride Month: Celebrating LGBTQ Comedians

Kotarba received his trivia prize last Thursday when he had the chance to have a stick-handling session with Gabriel, who provided him with tips on how to play better, and reassured him that as long as he’s a kind and respectful individual, his identity will not impact his ability to “fit in”.

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Kotarba has already experienced the difficulties of transitioning at a young age.

“When I started transitioning, it was kind of hard, but I got used to it,” he told 980 CFPL Thursday.

“I went to tell my mom, and I said, ‘I want to be a boy,’ and she said, ‘all right.'”

Read more: Ontario Hockey League hires director of diversity and inclusion

The Pride is Right Trivia Contest is open to participants from all over the world. Tickets can be purchased online.

The game is in support of Youth Opportunities Unlimited YOU Emergency Youth Shelter’s food program and Queer Events’ Food for Queers program.

Empowering Inuit youth through hockey
Empowering Inuit youth through hockey