As the Blackhawks were finishing up a recent win, some of Chicago's other hockey role models quietly practiced in a Lincolnwood industrial park on a sheet of ice roughly half the size of the one at the United Center.
The familiar whir of skate blades cutting through the ice and the popping of rubber pucks smacking against wooden sticks echoed through the cavernous building as the 65-plus member Chicago Gay Hockey Association orchestrated another practice.
It sounds, well, anything but relaxing. But for Matt Berger, a 35-year-old Lombard resident who started playing hockey only in May, the organized chaos felt like something else: a reprieve.
"The coolest thing for me is because there's so much going on on the ice, all you can think about is hockey," he said. "All the stress from your day, all the other stuff that's going on, you don't have time to think about it. It's incredibly relaxing."
On this night, members of the newly formed instructional squad—introduced within the past few weeks to keep up with demand—congregated to run drills and develop chemistry. Plays were drawn up, instructions barked out, plays—and mistakes—were made.
For a novice such as Berger, it was a welcome chance to hone his craft.
"To be able to play with other people about the same skill level but to also have really good people give you tips, it's hugely helpful," he said. "These guys go out of their way to make sure we're learning the right stuff."
Anthony Alfano, a CGHA board member and former college player at DePaul, said the not-for-profit is as much about effecting change as it is about hockey.
"There's a culture in most sports and hockey as well that most LGBT athletes don't feel comfortable growing up in the locker room and outside of the locker room," the 23-year-old Uptown resident said. "We try to provide that safe space for people to play a sport they love and be themselves as well."
"It's a comfort level because there's that level of acceptance," Berger added. "It gives you the strength to be able to keep going."
The group says there's only one major difference between their locker room and others.
"Our locker room's a little more fun than everyone else," said Brian Hull, a 30-year-old Lakeview resident and league board member.
The CGHA has teams in a number of local city leagues. Teams from the CGHA also will travel beyond the Chicago area three to five times per year for tournaments.
The league's expansion plans sound ambitious. The board sees places like New York and Toronto and wonder why there are gay leagues there and not in Chicago, a town that prides itself on welcoming the LGBT community with open arms.
"Chicago is the gay center of the Midwest," Hull said. "It's ridiculous that we're not bigger than we are already."
Part of the problem, said Michael Ko, is hockey is already popular in Chicago.
"You don't have to come to one place," the 39-year-old Bucktown resident said. "If you're an hour away, you're not going to drive to join a team."
The solution, Alfano said, is as simple as the group speaking up.
"We have gone to a lot of organizations in the city and the surrounding suburbs to let them know that our organization does exist," Alfano said.
Ko, one of the CGHA's original members, estimates that about one-fourth of its players are straight.
"I do see us being an entire Chicago LGBT-friendly league, of teams that are playing against each other and anyone can join regardless of your sexual identity," Alfano said. "The mission of our organization is to provide a safe space for people who want to play hockey regardless of your gender identity or sexual orientation."
Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.
GROWING AND GROWING …
The Chicago Gay Hockey Association started 11 years ago with about a dozen members playing on a single team. Now the group has more than 60 players across several teams, with players assigned based on skill level. Members pay a $20 annual fee.
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