I’m hunched over a consolatory beer at a sports bar in Washington, D.C watching the Washington Capitals disintegrate.
My compatriots and I languish in the harsh LED reality playing out before us. The Capitals, like a very good sailing team or a very bad hockey team, have blown another lead. Another one, to the hated New York Rangers in the playoffs. This one hurts, and the man next to me at the bar turns to his neighbor.
“Fuckin’ Stepan, man,” he says.
“Stepan whatever,” his neighbor snorts. “The Caps are playing too much dump-and-chase! They need to carry it into the zone,” he says, holding the word “carry” like a newborn. “Carrrrrrryyyyyyyyy it into the zone.”
“And then do what with it? They still have to beat Lundqvist,” the first says.
“Lundqvist.” The name konks his partner into an awed sort of daze.
“He’s so good.”
“And so fucking beautiful.”
“Oh my God. Did you know he’s a twin?”
His neighbor gasps delightedly, and the first man pulls out an iPhone. They swipe through several pictures of Henrik Lundqvist and his brother, primarily shirtless, alternately murmuring and cooing in approval. The first man puts away his phone, and they both turn back to the action on the TV.
“Well, he’s still weak high to his glove side, and he’s still not worth the ten million the Rangers are giving him.”
“Agreed,” the other man says.
I order another beer from a man in a twist-tied crop top that says “Nasty Boy.” He tells me the Caps should have never fired Boudreau.
Washington, D.C is a unique, some might say strange city. The local industry is governance of the people, which amounts to spending their money on various things—among them the ultra-efficient slaughter of other people, which involves far more bidding and Super Bowl commercials.
To many otherplace-marginalized groups, the District is Home, with a meaningfully-felt capital H. The rich history of the city and its people is painted in broad strokes with the stories of African-Americans, immigrants, and gays.
For that last group, now is an exciting time to live in Washington, D.C. Many in the city feel they are living through their community’s Civil Rights era, witnessing the promontory moment when their own eloquent and powerfully-connected champions are being met with a voting population finally coming to its senses.
To say that gay communities are thriving in DC would be to say that flowers seem to flourish when exposed to sunlight. Communities that have long existed are now feeling free to operate more openly, and to pursue the things they enjoy.
And surprise, surprise: people love hockey.
The Washington, D.C. metropolitan area has the nation’s highest percentage of openly gay adults, according to Business Insider. With the city being a further destination for transplanted business people from all over the country—including the nation’s frostier, hockey-er bits—the enormity of the gay hockey fanbase begins to feel more like an inevitability than an anomaly.
“People from all over the country stop here at least long enough to have a drink,” says Eric Barahona, a bartender at Nellie’s Sports Bar at the corner of U and 9th Streets in northwest D.C.
Maybe you already think of prosecco mimosas and 2-for-1 Sex On The Beach specials when you think of NHL playoff watch parties. Maybe you think of drag contests, and the music of Miss Christina Turner. At one point in time, I didn’t.
But at Nellie’s, that’s exactly what you get. Nellie’s is, for lack of a better term, a gay sports bar. It’s really more like the freakishly athletic but dramatically gifted love child of a sports bar and a gay bar. It’s basically Zac Efron in that Disney movie. Opened in 2007, Nellie’s has for years served as a gathering place for gay sports fans in D.C.—a constant, valuable brick-and-mortar rallying point for the community to claim as its own.
“I think it’s important,” Barahona says, “that people can come in and not be judged and watch sports however they want to.”
Conveniently, the opening of the bar coincided with the Washington Capitals’ first playoff season in four years. Quickly, hockey fans took over the bar, located just three Metro stops from Verizon Center. Many groups hosted watch parties for Caps games, and Nellie’s transformed—to the dismay of some in the gay community—into not just the best gay bar to watch a game, but one of the most popular sports bars in town.
For his part, Barahona is glad for the crossover success.
“It makes [this fan base] seem more normal, more usual,” he says. “Like, there are gay hockey fans, lots of them, and you need to cater to them. They’re writing the story.”
But while real estate is important, a city—like a bar, or a good Soylent Green recipe—is only as good as its people.
Long-time partners Doug Johnson and Craig Brownstein run a little website out of their Washington, D.C. home that has caught quite a few people’s attention.
PuckBuddys.com, an oh-so-subtle single-entendre, is their brainchild and occupies a fairly unique space on the web [Full disclosure: I contribute to PuckBuddys]. Its tagline, slapped in bold letters beneath an image of several men arm-in-arm creating a rainbow of color with their NHL jerseys, Washington Capitals red to vintage L.A. Kings violet, is “FOR BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE HOCKEY.”
“North America [had] been crying out for a gay hockey fan blog for years,” Brownstein recalls of the site’s genesis. “We are stepping up right now. We’re here, we’re queer, we’re Caps fans,” they declared.
“We really were the first,” Johnson remembers of the internet landscape at the time. But being the first, Johnson and Brownstein knew, did not mean being alone.
“We can’t be so unique that we’re the only gay guys who actually love hockey,” Johnson said. “There is an appetite for this.”
So they launched the site several years ago with little more than a love for a hockey and a lust for hockey players, and no real structure to their posts.
“I will be the first to admit they were very primitive,” Brownstein concedes, a tough admission for a successful Washington PR executive. “Fifty or a hundred words to accompany a picture, ‘Look, this guy’s hot. Look at this hot guy,’ you know.”
But as the site developed, so did its voice. Johnson and Brownstein brought on gay writers and players from all 30 NHL fan bases, and PuckBuddys evolved into a destination site for lovers of both snark and sharp statistical analysis. The big boys have noticed, too. Yahoo! Sports’ Puck Daddy blog named PuckBuddys.com the Hockey Blog of the Year in 2011, and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has singled out the site as one of this favorites. Additional features in the New York Times and OutSports solidified PuckBuddys as a unique and valuable voice in the hockey world.
“Maintaining that level of hockey acumen and cheekiness” was the goal, Johnson says. “Let’s not lose our gay identity.”
More than just sass and fury, though, the website has become a lighthouse for many young people tossed in the confusing tempest of growing up gay.
In 2012, the site featured the five-part story of Zach, a high school hockey player from the conservative Midwest identified only by his “nom de rink,” who shared his story of growing up gay and a skater. Coming from a dyed-in-the-wool hockey community where family and friend circles are all shaped like rinks, Zach spoke of coming out to his teammates and coach in a culture where the words “gay” and “fag” are tossed out more frequently than goons from a line brawl.
Zach’s story—and I hate to ruin the ending, but it’s a happy one—not only served as a real and powerful It Gets Better story for thousands of young athletes, but let those athletes know that, God, yes, they were not alone out there.
“There are thousands and thousands and thousands of male and female athletes who experience that all the time —quietly, painfully," Johnson says. "The idea was that to hear somebody’s story, other people, other high school and college students, would hear this story and realize, ‘I’m not alone. He gets me.'”
Yes, Zach’s story said, you can be a badass hockey player and be gay. You can be a tough guy and a queer guy. You can check them out of the rink and check them out, out of the rink. “A story like that, it connects with people. And whether they’re straight or gay or uncertain, an adult or a child or whatever, that resonates,” Johnson says.
And while PuckBuddys.com continues to entertain today with its uniquely D.C. blend of diplomatic interviews and pithy Stanley Cup playoffs coverage, it is of this role that Johnson and Brownstein are proudest:
To be the voice for the voiceless, sometimes, you have to be snarky.
Some people are surprised to hear that a significant portion of the DC hockey fan base is gay. To them, the notion of gay hockey fans is unexpected and somehow incongruent. How can a sport so brutish, so crude and ungainly, so much like a beer fart metastasized into an event, appeal to a population so popularly known for being, well, not that way? Hell, even Brownstein thought he and Johnson would stand out like big gay thumbs when they attended their first Washington Capitals game together.
“Craig was absolutely convinced we were the only gay guys there,” remembers Johnson. But himself a Michigan native and lifelong hockey fan, he knew better.
“I was walking through the concourse thinking, “Oh no. Oh, Mary. Oh, sister. We are not the only ones here.”
And while the two bloggers may have been surprised by the positive reaction their unique voice received from the hockey community, those least surprised of all were hockey players.
“’It’s a game of misfits, on both sides of the glass,’” one straight former NCAA player and friend told Brownstein. “He said, ‘Of course you were welcomed in. It doesn’t surprise me in the least.’”
Indeed, it is a sport of bemulleted Jagrs and bespectacled Hansons in triplicate. It is a sport that gets not but a passing pinstriped Melrose of a mention on SportsCenter and, to be fair, does require strapping knives to your feet and dancing about on ice. It is the odd duck of the four major sports, and such ducks would naturally fly together.
As a hockey player myself, I think the natural marriage of hockey and gay fans (now legal in all 50 states!) comes from something much deeper than that. Hockey—as other sports will claim but none will exhibit to the same degree—is a sport of “playing hurt.” It requires every single member of a team tossing their bodies and brains into the collection pot. For every second a player is on the ice, he is trusting every single other player on his team with his bones, his ACLs, his teeth, his gut, his hands—and when one of those body parts suffers a blow, he is expected to keep fighting his hardest, because he can be damn sure the man next to him will be, too.
This hurt is not just physical. I’ve played on teams the night a player’s mother died. I’ve played with guys facing foreclosure, bankruptcy, and default. I’ve seen linemates lace them up with broken hearts far more often than with broken bones. I skated hardest for those guys, on those nights.
So if the hurt a teammate is playing with is the Sisyphean agony of every single day of his life having to hide who he is and who he wants to be, well, then—strap ‘em on, kid. Our line’s out next.