“Hockey is for everyone” is a wonderful message of inclusion and diversity from the NHL. While it is important that they lead the charge in this effort, there are many inclusive leagues throughout North America. The Madison Gay Hockey Association, in Madison, Wisconsin, is one such league. The MGHA makes sure everyone feels welcome and encouraged to join, regardless of their skill level or orientation.
Maggie Augustin works as the Member Relations Liaison for the MGHA. Being a leader wasn’t always in her blood, but playing hockey helped her discover more about herself than she ever imagined. I recently spoke with Maggie about her work with the MGHA and how hockey has helped forge her into a leader.
KYLE SCULLY: How long have you been a part of the organization?
MAGGIE AUGUSTIN: I have been a skater since fall of 2016. Before that, I had attended some games in the stands just to get a feel for the organization and hockey itself.
KS: What drew you to the league?
MA: My partner introduced me to the league. They said, this is what I do during the winter, it’s really fun and exciting, and it’s so much more than just a sport; it’s a community. So, they kind of put the bug in my ear and that’s why I started watching them play and getting a feel for it. I was 30 at the time and even though I’m athletic, I wasn’t sure I would like it. I had very little experience with hockey, and to me, everything looked so fast. I had no concept of positioning or anything like that, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to learn it.
KS: So, you had some initial concerns?
MA: Yes, I’m a fairly competitive person. I kept thinking, what if I’m not good? What if I let my team down? Those feelings were totally wiped off the table as soon as I started playing. Whatever your skill level, everyone is going to help you. That was one of the amazing things about the league, because in Madison, we have other leagues but they’re another level and they don’t allow for the growth of a novice player.
KS: Did you have any skating experience?
MA: I rollerbladed. I knew the concepts of balancing. I had been ice skating as a kid, so I had knowledge there, but I had never geared up and I had never hit a puck. And again, I didn’t really know anything about the sport in general. I definitely grew up in a baseball and football family.
KS: Could you describe the first competitive game you played with the league?
MA: We are competitive, but it’s not the main goal to win. No pun intended. We just want to make sure that everybody has fun and is safe. So, the first game, I was really nervous. They put me on wing and I cannot remember what it means to be offside. But again, if there was any pressure, it was literally just from myself. It was never from a teammate or my partner.
KS: What would you say is the mission statement of the league?
MA: We call it the MGH Way. We are about fair and inclusive play. Competitive, but safe, no checking. We’re all about getting folks who may have had some anxieties about playing team sports. We want to give people something to do on a gloomy winter Sunday to get them out of the house despite a disorder or depression or something like that. That’s what our league has to offer. We really want to give people space to let them carry the puck and have an exciting moment and try to score a goal. It’s not like that anywhere else that I’ve played except for at the MGHA.
KS: How is your league more inclusive than other groups?
MA: I’m glad you asked. The beginning of every year we have an orientation. We educate folks on the fact that there are going to be people with different gender identities. We’re very big about honoring pronouns and not assuming that you know someone’s pronoun. I’m also not assuming that you know someone’s sexuality along with not assuming that you know their skill level. So, we educate and we mentor and we make sure that they have their gear and we answer all of their questions. Everybody coming into the league gets paired up with a mentor. What makes it even more inclusive is that it’s not strictly a gay league. We have all sorts of spectrums and we have allies and we have straight folks that just want to play hockey and give back. I also don’t believe that there’s another league in town that is geared towards novices who’ve never played hockey before.
KS: Is it expensive to play?
MA: Our league dues are ridiculously low in comparison to other leagues around town. We have sponsors that help, and we provide financial aid to folks who may not be able to afford the league. We also have the ability to go to Pure Hockey or Play-it-again sports and go help people pick out some of the gear and then cover it for them which is really cool. I think this is definitely something unique to our league.
KS: What do you think hockey could do to be like more inclusive from the youth leagues to the professional level?
MA:I think there has got to be a lot more education and not just assuming things about people. As far as what I see, there’s a problem with football and baseball and hockey. It seems like you still get those homophobic slurs here and there. I think it really has got to come from the leadership top down and holding people accountable. Especially for youth leagues, the kids don’t know. They’re inherently non-biased. Their biases come from the people around them, their coaches. Parents and coaches just need to teach these kids how to play hockey, to have fun and to be more aware that there are people who may identify differently and come from more diverse backgrounds. Just because this is the way we’ve always had it or done it, it’s not necessarily the right way, if that makes sense. Attitude really is a big thing, too.
KS: Do you have a strong memory of a positive experience you felt playing hockey with the league?
MA: I feel like the organization and my experiences have been life-changing for me. I tend to be a little bit more introverted and being a part of the league has really helped in my personal growth. This includes everything from getting out there and giving back and learning to be more confident about having conversations, to sharing experiences and figuring out ways to give back to the community and to our players. I don’t know if I could pinpoint a single moment but it was awesome when I scored my first goal.
KS: Do you collect any sort of hockey memorabilia?
MA: The only things that I’ve collected are tickets to games. I saw Women’s Olympic Hockey. It was Canada versus the US. I got a poster there and I got some signatures, which was really awesome. It’s such a fun game to watch and yeah, if I had an opportunity to keep going to games like that, I would collect the tickets and the posters and stuff they would be handing out.
KS: What does this league, playing hockey and being part of this family, mean to you?
MA: It means community when there really wasn’t a whole lot of community. It means that personal growth that I was talking about. It means I can share my experiences and bring other folks who might have some apprehension about not being the greatest or the best because that’s the message that’s thrown around in other sports and in locker rooms growing up. If you’re not the best, then you don’t have as much value and that’s really what we should shed and just like get rid of that idea that you have to be competitive and you have to be perfect.
Just remember that you can have strengths and you’re valid with whatever skill level you have. For some folks, it was literally life-saving for them. They had no community and they had nowhere to turn and they didn’t think that they had value as a person. We reach out to a lot of folks with struggles, and sometimes we even call to make sure somebody is alright. It goes way beyond just the sport of hockey. It’s the community of us coming together. A lot of us share the same stories of intolerance or being shunned from other sports or from our families. So, we create our own family. We also have amazing allies. We’d never be able to do anything without allies as I always say.
You can learn more about the Madison Gay Hockey Association at MadisonGayHockey.org ■
Kyle Scully is a lifelong Sharks fan whose secret dream is to attend the Sloan Analytics Conference. Loves Zebra from Popcornopolis but only eats it at hockey games. Follow him on Twitter @socal_scully.
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