Coming Out as a Hockey Person

Pro Players
min - read
Willow Baker
Pro Players
min - read
If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
My personal experience as a “hockey person” led me to fear coming out as trans.
Hockey is founded in respect for all participants, yet marginalized groups are still disrespected.
Despite the pain and struggle for equity within hockey, my love for the sport won’t let me leave it in such disarray.

Hockey is Respect

I can hear it ringing in my head.

I like to imagine that most who’ve seen Miracle can do the same. Kurt Russell, playing legendary coach Herb Brooks in the best film ever made about hockey, bellows at his Olympic team in a pivotal scene, personifying the culture that hockey strives for:

“When you pull on that jersey, you represent yourself and your teammates, and the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the one on the back! Get that through your head!”

I've come to identify as a “hockey person,” so I am well aware of the hard-headedness that can be found in ice rinks.

Over the course of 31 years of my life, I’ve worn many hats (and helmets) in hockey: player, fan, winger, junior league season-ticket holder, instructor, in-game host, center, critic, captain, assistant, defender, scratch, penalty killing specialist, power play net-front, pest, even goaltender, and now, writer.

However, my personal development, inside and outside the rink, drove me to a crossroads with the sport of hockey.

As NHL headlines scrolled in late 2022, when individual players made deliberate anti-LGBTQ+ statements by refusing to wear Pride uniforms, I found myself slipping into a chasm of questioning: at what point does putting the team — putting hockey — before yourself become problematic?

At what point does the resulting pain lead you to walk away? Or, more personally: if I identify as a hockey person, I probably can’t also be a trans woman … right?

I was fortunate to have Toronto-born neighbo(u)rs share their favorite pastime with me and other young Texans in suburban Dallas, where I first played street hockey around 1999, when the Stars lifted their only Stanley Cup.

By third grade, I had signed up for organized hockey and found my life's greatest love. I quickly understood that hockey was founded upon respect.

The binding thread for this shared activity — some of us grinders, others snipers, others shut-down defense, and then whatever the hell goalies are doing — the diversity of perspectives on the ice, the basis for respect across the hockey world.

Respect for your teammates, for your opposition, for your coaches and officials, and for yourself. Weapons strapped to your feet, you’re told to master this surface, relearn how to walk and run, before you can even compete.

From there, you're handed another weapon and told you can only swing it at the smallest object on the ice. The speed and the empowerment those weapons bestow inevitably culminate in the inherently violent sport of hockey, with bombastic collisions between sticks and pucks and boards and players.

The weapons, the ice surface, the mass in motion, also all bring increased risk.

Without respect, hockey probably would not be deemed safe for humans. And yet, hockey was my safe space. Growing up as an upper-middle-class white boy, I easily found a respectable niche in hockey. I earned respect for practice and skating stride-work excellence, relentless pressure and body contact (despite consistently being one of the smallest players), and a jabber jaw ready to offer an honest analysis for my own game or that of any other player.

Like so many people this sport sinks its claws into, I embraced the physicality and reactivity, the depth of camaraderie, and the endorsement of sacrifice and grit.

Quite the visceral safe space, born of body contact and brouhahas, but if anything, to me, it felt real. You work hard at the rink, and you get rewarded.

Willow Baker
Early in each of our hockey careers, I got to skate with Manny Malhotra. We both found success in hockey through hard work on the ice.

Hockey Human

There is a strange narrative that sports are a reprieve from daily life, subject to no influence or representation of social or political factors within the world at large.

This seems quite disingenuous, particularly within men’s professional hockey, considering how small, close-knit, and pedagogical the culture can be.

Prior to the rise of social media and expanded coverage, I recall my dad bragging to other parents about how you didn't see NHL players facing drug charges, sexual misconduct, bankruptcy, or other social problems that made headlines in other sport leagues. Playing travel hockey for seven years under my hockey hero (a coach who had played in the NHL), even the distilled anecdotes and life notes were enough to understand that hockey was no less problematic, no less capable of even the darkest of humanity, than any other sport.

As a person of considerable privilege (read: white, male-presenting), until I began to explore my own gender identity, I never faced any sort of significant challenges in hockey. Most of us get over the hurdle that we’ll never play professionally.

Many don’t have to choose between staying near home or leaving to play for a better team elsewhere. Some don’t fear having to choose between hockey and another sport.When it came to hockey, I understood that it was my priority. It led my life’s decision-making — from friends, to media intake, to cramming puck into every school project — and I loved that for me.

Hockey was my everything, even when I had so much more beyond hockey. Even as I burned up that excess as an alcoholic.

While my substance abuse represents a different tome of my life’s story, I was fortunate that I have teammates outside the rink who pulled me aside for heart-to-hearts. In December 2016, stopping the drowning of my inner turmoil through recovery allowed me to truly question, recognize, and formulate who I am.

Roughly a year ago, in fall 2022, I finally crossed the threshold of personal acceptance that I was not cisgender. As I understood myself, though I was assigned male at birth, I have come to find in my own personal ways that living as what is societally-deemed a woman is more conducive to my overall health and well-being, including both my physical and mental health.

Now the challenge lies outside my skin: how will the rest of the hockey world take this?

Hockey is part of who I am, and, so long as I choose, I am a part of hockey.

Hockey is Disrespect

Hockey is not yet for everyone, sadly.

I had seen the treatment of marginalized individuals and groups within hockey spaces. Not everyone gains respect for simply stepping on the ice. As I was ingrained deeper and deeper within the hockey ecosystem, even before feeling confident enough to speak up, I saw a glaring lack of respect.

My favorite players are typified by unmatched work ethic on the ice, so when I championed players like Richard Park, Manny Malhotra, and Wayne Simmonds growing up, I received derisive comments from teammates, but it was nothing compared to the racial comments used toward those players.

Granted, I got to pick my conversations and go back to being a white forechecker. Those non-white forecheckers faced discrimination for simply existing in hockey spaces.

Being in locker rooms, I’d hear teammates berate the handful of girls seen at tryouts or on other teams; hear them describe how they would go out of their way to body-check any girl, if only to prove their mettle on the ice. I've seen the same stain, gross rites of passage, replicated online and in-person, with men gatekeeping hockey knowledge and fandom from girls and women.

I'm well aware of hockey's longstanding history with homophobic and misogynistic language and actions. In naïveté, I used those words just as frivolously as a youth before swearing off the stuff (and sticking to tried and true, gender-neutral curse words – I am still a hockey player!).

Even before maturing to understand intersectionality in adulthood, I could see and understand why Indigenous and people of color, women, or anyone of queer identity would not feel safe or comfortable in such a space.

That hit closer and closer to home as I came to understand that I was one of those queer people myself.

What’s Left to Prove

I have slowly but surely lost respect for hockey, and for that part of my identity.

The torment of being perfectly acceptable up until my personal life clicked is searing. The self-loathing is visceral: why give up the safety and comforts of being white male-presenting? Can’t I remove my mascara, take out my earrings, dress androgynously and skirt the discomfort of feeling someone doesn’t want me there?

Why the hell is it now, at the visible pinnacle of homophobia and transphobia occurring in the NHL, with the league protecting a handful of bigots at the expense of social acceptance of LGBTQ+ communities, that I’ve come to this point? Why do I feel the need to prove myself in hockey?

Ask a hockey player why they block shots or play through pain. Ask a youth hockey player why they aren’t afraid to body-check players literally twice their size. Ask a Texas pest how they walked onto a university club team and rose from sixth-line forward to third-line grinder before drinking it all away.

Ask why I keep returning to this sport when it continues to shove the knife deeper, dismantling the heart that only wants to be given to hockey. This pain is like the lingering ailments that derail so many of our sport’s stars. I feel continually compelled to take stock of whether I can play through the pain, whether there could be some surgical action or within myself and my values, or if I needed to hang up the skates and walk away.

Since that first street hockey game in the late-90s Texas heat, until two days after I came out as a trans woman to my family on Valentine's Day of this year, I identified as a hockey person first. That changed on Feb. 16, when Anson Carter penned a piece in The Players’ Tribune. The NHL veteran of 11 years clearly laid out that it's not about what a hockey player is expected to look like or be.

What makes a hockey player a hockey player is that they play hockey. Here on the same screen that I am typing out this screed, Carter’s words empowered me for the first time as a queer person in hockey.

Here was evidence in the hockey world that being trans and being a hockey player are not incongruent.

To be a hockey person, you just need to be involved in hockey. It's taken serious time for me to compose this message, at least eight months.

How do you come out to an entity like sport?

My hockey hero and former coach still has not replied to messages sent in late February, describing who I've come to understand that I am.

Being a “hockey person” in the traditional sense sadly means that I have no expectation that I will ever receive a response. But hockey’s connection to the past can only take it so far.

And to be fair to my coach, they’ve probably never met a trans person within hockey spaces.

It’s easy to be afraid of things you don’t understand, and it’s hard to understand anything you aren’t in close proximity with.

So honestly, this is the only thing I have left to prove to capital-H Hockey: I identify as a trans woman and as a hockey person. I am part of this community, and, unless otherwise notified, I am not leaving. I am here to progress and grow, and help the sport I love do the same.

As our content manager often repeats during stressful times:I can’t change hockey if I leave it.

Pro Players