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Watching Hockey Universal in Any World


When I was but a lad, starting out in journalism, I found myself in a work practicum at an Edmonton radio station.

One of the staff was openly, overtly gay and would often stand right behind me in the radio station, trying to get a reaction. Finally I confronted him, with the news he was making me uncomfortable.

Over the next hour he told me his life story, of growing up gay in a family where such things are not contemplated. His dad actually pulled a gun on him after he came out.

It was a life changing conversation for me. Old fears, myths and prejudice tumbled out of my 21-year-old mind.

Not that I lost all my ignorance about the LGBTQ community after one discussion. But as a journalist I wrote numerous stories and columns about brave folks in the community. Over the years I became an advocate for the LGBTQ folks and stridently opposed to bigots and homophobes.

Maybe it’s why I ride a scooter and love shoes and bow ties. Who knows?

This piece, below, is a column I did in 2006, during the Edmonton Oilers Stanley Cup run. Sitting in Woodys bar that night, I learned another valuable lesson. You can’t pick out the gay men from the straights in a bar crowd.

Not even with a polygraph, I suspect.

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Watching hockey universal in any world — gay or straight

Edmonton Journal
Friday, May 26, 2006
By Scott McKeen

Sitting in a gay bar. Watching the Oilers game.

Curiosity brought me here. No, not that kind of curiosity.

I've watched Oilers games in all kinds of places over the years, from living rooms to rumpus rooms, to every kind of dive and drinkery. Never a gay bar, though.

This is Woodys Pub, on Jasper Avenue. OK, the smell of men's cologne is a bit strong. There's Blondie on the sound system when I walk in.

And I'm feeling a bit self-conscious. I've heard about gay-dar. Will someone shout me out as a heretic. But I get seated without incident. Other than an obvious lack of humans capable of birthing children, this looks like any other pub in town, with its TVs and frosty pints and posters for Labatt's.

"This is like the gay man's Cheers," says Murray Billett, a longtime Edmonton gay activist, who slides into the booth across from me. Billett points at the 40 or so guys watching the game. He asks: Do they look any different?

"Shake any family tree hard enough and the fruit will fall out of it," says Billett.

So why am I really here? Partly, I was inspired by a former colleague, who was gay, though he never admitted it. Years ago, when he still worked here, he joined us to watch hockey.

He'd jump, wave, scream and howl at the play. Watching him watching was often more fun than just watching.

So I thought it might be fun to experience that kind of unique exuberance one more time. Unfortunately, the Oilers aren't co-operating. The Ducks keep scoring, causing a chorus of groans.

A guy sitting nearby yells "Come on, let's get a touchdown." He's kidding, playing the stereotype for the straight guy, me.

Then, when the Oilers score, he lets out a guttural roar, fitting for any sports bar in town. When tough guy Georges Laraque scores, the place goes nuts. Hey Georges, you're popular on this side of town, too.

But speaking of stereotypes, what's with these gay guys watching hockey? Aren't they supposed to be at the art gallery or at home, decorating?

In the past few years I've written extensively in support of gay rights and gay marriage. Yet I'm still a bit guilty of seeing gay men in Will-and-Grace stereotypes. Billett is six-foot-four. He grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, drove trucks and played hockey.

He's not so unique, it turns out. Just Google the words gay and hockey and you'll come up with ample evidence that gay men don't just like watching hockey, but playing it.

Leagues exist all over the world. According to numerous accounts, the gay game of hockey is just as rough, just as likely to feature elbows, high sticks and fighting.

"Hit him -- HIT HIM!" yells the guy next to me.

The other reason I'm at Woodys to watch this game? To be honest, I enjoy the company of gay men. Let me rephrase. The gay men I've met over the years were all smart, articulate, well read and damn funny. No doubt, dour and ignorant gay men exist. But I've yet to meet one.

Straight-guy culture can at times be off-putting, with its macho posturing, with its quips and jabs to establish dominance. But Billett says things aren't so different in gay culture. The posturing might take a different tone, but it still exists.

Billett says we often make the mistake of thinking certain traits are unique to one subculture or another.

"A lot of straight guys don't like hockey," says Billett. And a lot of gay guys don't look the part, he adds. "Some you look at and go, 'Yup, gay.' "

Billett says, without a doubt, there are gay men playing in the NHL. Jim Brown, who owns Woodys, says he knows that to be a fact. One former Oiler remains in the closet, he says.

The wise gay sitting nearby yells out "Go Eskimos Go" with a pronounced lisp, for my benefit.

Across the room sits David, wearing an Oiler jersey with his designer eyewear. David had Oiler season tickets for years. Like me, he lost some of his interest during the Pocklington era. But he's back into it and yelling at the TVs.

David says he's happy this isn't karaoke night. On such nights, the sound of the game is drowned out by singing at Woodys. Tonight, it's all hockey.

I ask David if he ever played hockey. He says he played a lot of sports as a kid, including volleyball and basketball.

"I didn't like hockey at all," he says, smiling. "I was a figure skater."

Finally, a cliche.

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