Photo: Ben Waldman

Breaking the ice: How one hockey league affected LGBTQ communities

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Ben Waldman

Bob Thompson remembers Maple Leaf Gardens well, but not fondly.

In 1962, the year Thompson was born, the Leafs won their first of three consecutive Stanley Cup championships. The team’s roster was loaded with legends like Frank Mahovlich, Johnny Bower and Red Kelly. For kids like Thompson, it was a special time to start loving hockey.

Thompson spent long days on the ice at the local arena in his hometown of Thornhill, Ont., practising his shooting and deking. His brother and sister played too, and their dad coached them. The Thompson family spent countless hours at the rink each week, and wouldn’t have it any other way; they were a hockey family.

Over the years, a maintenance man who worked at the rink became a trusted friend of Thompson’s parents, and started taking Thompson and his older brother to watch the Leafs play at the Gardens.

It was here that the man sexually assaulted Bob. He was 11.

“For years, I couldn’t go back. There were too many horrible memories for me,” Thompson says over the phone.

Today he is openly gay, but it was a difficult journey, especially after the assault. “That’s why I think I had such a hard time understanding my sexuality. It was associated with something terrible from my past that nobody talked about at that time.”

Thompson continued to play hockey competitively through his adolescence, but as he got older he felt increasingly uncomfortable with the talk and rhetoric that went on in the locker room.

At the University of Guelph, he played in a house league, struggling to figure out who he really was. After graduation, Thompson was depressed, so he offered himself an ultimatum: “Either I figure it out or I commit suicide.”

He chose the former, and took an impromptu trip to California.

“I rented a car and drove around, and I ended up in my first gay bar,” Thompson laughs. He socialized with the locals and when he mentioned he was from Toronto, they were ecstatic. They told him that there were some great sports leagues in Toronto for gay men.

When Thompson returned home, the first thing he did was join a gay volleyball league. There were basketball leagues, softball leagues and swimming groups, but no hockey.

In the late 1980s, Thompson and a handful of other gay men started a tiny hockey game on an outdoor rink at Toronto’s Upper Canada College, a kindergarten to Grade 12 private boys’ school in Toronto. It was the modest beginning of the Toronto Gay Hockey Association, or the TGHA.

A few years later, the league invited Montreal’s gay hockey association for a “friendship game.” That first game has grown to become the Eastern Canada Cup, boasting players from Vancouver, Calgary, Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

The league’s home base eventually moved from Upper Canada College to York University. A few years ago, led by Thompson, the TGHA made the move to the Mattamy Athletic Centre at old Maple Leaf Gardens.

Decades after he was assaulted there, Bob Thompson walked back into the Gardens with his head held high.

“I came full circle. I was the one who brought the league to Maple Leaf Gardens,” Thompson says with pride. “Facing your fears is kind of … it’s therapeutic.”

Almost 30 years after Thompson and a few gay men played shinny on a small outdoor rink in Ontario, over 200 LGBTQ men, women and allies from across North America walked into one of the most hallowed arenas ever built to play in the 2016 Eastern Canada Cup on Thanksgiving weekend, likely the biggest gay hockey tournament ever.

Maple Leaf Gardens, now home to Ryerson University’s athletics programs, sits within Toronto’s Church-Wellesley village, a storied monument with a complex history of glory and disdain.

Stanley Cups were won here, the Beatles played here and Muhammad Ali put up his dukes here. Every inch of the building, now repurposed and remodelled, is a reminder of the past, for better or for worse.

Portraits of sports legends like Conn Smythe, the Leafs owner who built the Gardens, and famed broadcaster Foster Hewitt adorn the walls. But so does one of former Leafs owner Harold Ballard, whose spirit looms large.

Ballard became a minority owner of the Leafs in 1961, taking full control of the club in 1972 after a brief stint in prison for fraud.

He was famously sexist—“Women will be allowed to go in the locker room if they undress first,” Ballard once said of female sportswriters. In his memoir, former NHL goalie Grant Fuhr wrote that under Ballard, for the Leafs, “drafting players of colour was not considered.”

After Toronto Star sports reporter Frank Orr wrote a somewhat critical column about him, Orr alleged Ballard started a rumour that he was gay, which at that point was less an observation than a blatant attempt to demean a man and kill his career.

Attitudes like these were common then. Coaches called players sissies and bitches. Slurs like faggot were thrown around at will. Being gay was a boundary for athletes who dreamed of playing in Ballard’s Garden, and in many ways it still is.

The TGHA and the Eastern Canada Cup are slowly but surely knocking that barrier down.

Fifteen minutes before his team takes the ice, Tom Leeson stretches next to the rink, sprawled out in his goalie equipment with his legs jutting out to the side.

I ask him if he has 10 minutes to talk.

“I’ll give you seven,” Leeson replies. He takes this league and the tournament seriously.

Leeson, a 29-year-old software developer, didn’t play hockey growing up. The TGHA was his first major exposure to competitive hockey, and he now plays in several leagues around Toronto.

“It’s a privilege to play here,” Leeson says with appreciation. Bearded and towering, Leeson has heard derogatory terms used many times before. It discourages people, he says, and often pushes gay people away from sports.

“You shouldn’t be stuck on the sidelines as a member of the [LGBTQ] community.”

Leeson’s team takes the ice. They lose, but one speedy skater on his team stands out.

It’s Jeffrey Buttle, the former world champion in men’s figure skating. Buttle joined the TGHA five years ago after he retired from competitive skating, and he had never played hockey before.

“Obviously I knew how to skate though,” Buttle chuckled.

Team sports frightened Buttle growing up. He knew there was a chance he’d feel alienated in the crowd, so he stuck to figure skating.

“Until I knew there was a gay hockey league I had no idea that I could feel that comfortable about who I am, learn a new sport and meet people,” he said. “So when I had that opportunity I jumped for it.”

“It’s been encouraging.”

As Buttle and Leeson’s team leaves the ice, Terry Finucan, 58, waits for his chance to play. He’s been in the TGHA for 17 seasons.

“This league has been my salvation,” Finucan says. Given his past career, he’s heard the word a lot.

For 33 years, Finucan taught for the Catholic School Board. At any point during that tenure, Finucan’s reputation could have been tarnished for being a practicing homosexual.

“If I were ever called in and asked if I was a ‘practicing homosexual,’ I would have said ‘I don’t need to practice, I got this perfect,’” Finucan jokes, snapping his fingers.

The happiness that the Eastern Canada Cup injects into the arena is contagious. It seems that every single person there feels privileged like Tom Leeson, encouraged like Jeffrey Buttle or saved like Terry Finucan.

As Thompson says, it’s a form of therapy.

The league and its tournament have given much to many. And to do it in Maple Leaf Gardens is like having the last laugh.

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