By DOUG JOHNSON & CRAIG BROWNSTEIN
If hockey is a sport of improbabilities – of athletes the size of moose who skate like Johnny Weir and fight like Mike Tyson – then PuckBuddys may well be one of the most improbable sports blogs yet.
Born from an off-color joke (just read the name out loud), we launched PuckBuddys five years ago with the modest goals posting pictures of hot shirtless NHL players, of which there are many, and making cheeky jokes.
To our surprise, our unorthodox hockey blog was welcomed almost immediately by the entire D.C. hockey scene. Somehow we filled a need that nobody really even considered before. With time – and a healthy dollop of sass – PuckBuddys quickly became, as Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis called us, “a must read.”
And while shirtless hockey players will always have a home on our site, in time the hot-guy gag grew tired.
We wanted to know just how many others like us were out there – in Washington and elsewhere. How many gay players, hit with a locker-room’s casual homophobia, are shoved a little deeper in their closet? How many fans in the stands are afraid to show a moment of affection after a game-winning goal?
And then we asked, improbably, could PuckBuddys become a home for them? Maybe even move the meter slightly?
Starting with the 2011-2012 season, we recruited contributors in every city with an NHL team. Being LGBT wasn’t a requirement; being accepting was. Our contributors were covering all but two NHL teams, and we were getting credentialed by the NHL to cover the biggest events on the calendar. It was clear for all who would see: LGBT fans were everywhere, and they loved hockey.
Players were everywhere, too, although they were much harder to see. To date, there has never been an openly gay man playing in a North American professional hockey league – even though by our count there have been four women.
But there are LGBT players at every level out there. We know because they began to find us. And, perhaps most memorably in the case of “Zach,” they wanted to be seen and heard.
“Zach,” a nom-de-rink, was a talented, closeted high school player from a conservative Midwest family. In a five-part series of interviews, Zach shared his experiences growing up in hockey, being gay — and his struggle to reconcile the two.
In the process, “Zach” came out as Nick Kleidon; he came out to his team, his family and the world. In telling his story, he not only opened up to us but provided a role model for others who were motivated to do the same. We know, because we’ve heard their stories, too.
When you play hockey, you learn pretty quickly that everyone plays injured. Cut on your cheek? Get a towel. Puck to the mouth? Back out on the ice. Broken leg? Drag yourself in front of the net to stop a goal if you have to. Why? Because perhaps more than any other major sport, hockey means team. You play for the rest of your squad, and they play for you, whatever the team needs and pain be damned. They call it “hockey tough.”
Yet as PuckBuddys’ contributor Jason Rogers recently wrote, there are all kinds of injuries in life, and most don’t involve sutures. A hockey player knows hurt, and a team knows how to fight it together. A former college hockey player, who also happens to be straight, put it this way: “Hockey’s a game of misfits, on both sides of the glass,” he told us. “Of course you were welcomed. It’s not a surprise in the least.”
And improbable as it first seemed, maybe that’s why PuckBuddys – and all LGBT NHL fans – have been welcomed with near-universal embrace. Player or fan, straight or gay, we’re just another member of the bigger hockey family, each of us wounded in some way, knowing that the best way through is together.
Well, that and the sass.
Doug Johnson is a professional journalist and Capitals fan, although he will never root against his Detroit Red Wings. Craig Brownstein works in public relations in D.C. Together, they run the PuckBuddys blog, described by the New York Times as ‘an important trailblazer in the game’s cybersphere.’