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Palm Springs International Pride Hockey Tournament: Locker Room Exposé – San Francisco Bay Times
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Palm Springs International Pride Hockey Tournament: Locker Room Exposé – San Francisco Bay Times

Palm Springs International Pride Hockey Tournament: Locker Room Exposé – San Francisco Bay Times

By John Chen–

It never crossed my mind that I would be standing in the middle of the locker room of not just one, but three queer ice hockey teams after exhilarating and hard-fought games interviewing sweaty and exhausted players while taking photos of them unabashed, uncensored, and unfazed. Yet, here I was, invited into the locker rooms of the San Francisco Earthquakes and two Minnesota Narwhal teams to openly take photos, and more importantly, candidly discuss the naked truth inside the LGBTQ+ hockey culture of positivity, equality, and acceptance.

John Chen outside of Acrisure Arena, home to the Coachella Valley Pro Ice Hockey team,
the Firebirds

For almost a year, my buddy Cody Hart had been telling me about the strong camaraderie and non-judgmental culture of queer ice hockey and the amazing inaugural tournament he attended in early 2023, the Palm Springs International Pride Hockey Tournament hosted by the Coachella Valley Pride Hockey Association. Speaking glowingly of the tournament and all the great queer players he had befriended, Cody twisted my arm to make the seven-hour drive south with him to the Palm Desert (also known as Coachella Valley (CV or Greater Palm Springs Area) last month and follow San Francisco Bay Area’s lone LGBTQ+ ice hockey team, the Earthquakes. Let me tell you, I really didn’t look forward to all the sun, the warmth, the pools, the parties, and meeting all types of sexy hockey players one bit.

Palm Springs International Pride Hockey Tournament Directors Bob Tranchida (left) and Paul O’Kane (right), with Public Relations Director John Burkland

In Spring of 1998, Bob Tranchida, a transplant from New England, answered a newspaper ad about potentially forming a Bay Area gay hockey team to participate in the Amsterdam Gay Games that summer. Tranchida recalled, “I remember clearly, at this old Victorian house on 18th street in the Castro, five of us talked about going to Holland and it seemed like such a crazy impossible dream. And yet, there we were, in the summer of ’98, marching into this huge soccer stadium in Amsterdam as the leading contingent in the games proudly representing Team San Francisco in our spanking new Earthquakes hockey jerseys.”

Withstanding over 25 years of leadership changes and player turnover, the Earthquakes still stands today as not only the first and only surviving San Francisco LGBTQ+ ice hockey team, but also one of the longest, continuous running queer sports teams in the Bay Area.

SF Earthquakes team captain Carl Oosterman (right), and teammates Mike Berry (left) and Rune Madsen

Carl Oosterman, the current Earthquakes captain, took over leadership duties in 2019. Oosterman explained his reasoning: “Being in San Francisco, with its rich history, culture, and advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community, I saw the team as a beacon and a safe space for those who love hockey, and for those who would like to be a part of something unique that builds confidence, self-esteem, and valued friendships.”

Oosterman shared his ice hockey journey with me. “My dad took me to see the new pro hockey team, the San Jose Sharks, at the Cow Palace and I was instantly hooked,” he said. “After coming out as gay, I found the San Francisco Earthquakes, a queer hockey team where I felt I could be myself and connect with the LGBTQ+ community. The one thing that stood out was the atmosphere in the locker room. There was no attitude, no judgment, no ageism and no body shaming. We were all hockey players bound together by our love for the sport.”

Team members of the Minnesota Narwhals with supporters

On my first day of the tournament, Oosterman, with the consent of his team members, invited me into their locker room to talk with Earthquakes players and observe the hockey locker room culture. You see, unlike other amateur sports where there’s no actual physical locker room, hockey players must have a locker room to change in and out of their laborious protective and playing gear and clean up after games because the gear has little ventilation. I quickly learned the hockey locker room is a place where teammates bond, show off their battle scars, and share their tales of fight and grit. It is a safe space with unequivocal acceptance. For these reasons, inside the hockey locker room, everyone is the same. Everything is uncensored, leaving nothing to the imagination. Oh, and for those of you like me, lucky to be invited into a hockey locker room, I highly recommend you invest in a gas mask.

San Francisco Earthquakes with Public Relations Director John Burkland at a tournament social event hosted by Toolshed Bar

While enthusiastically taking photos of the Earthquakes carefully avoiding capturing anything overly revealing (wink), I heard a faint weep barely audible among a sea of laughter and spirted conversations. Following the seemingly disheartening sound, I found Marion Lang, a trans woman, sitting amongst her teammates quietly sobbing. Concerned, I whispered, “Is everything okay?” Lang smiled and said, “Sorry, I just started tearing up. You see, I’ve been playing hockey all of my life and too many times I had to quit because I just hadn’t felt comfortable enough or safe. And with this team, I am able to reconnect with the sport I love so much and feel real joy playing; it is just so special to me.” Wiping away a tear, Lang continued, “I feel so lucky that this team is here!”

Shortly after my Earthquakes locker room visit, I met another amazing hockey player from Minnesota, Dani Bennett-Danek, the Director of TCQHA (Twin Cities Queer Hockey Association). Upon hearing of my visit to the San Francisco locker room, Bennett-Danek immediately invited me to visit her two Narwhal teams’ locker rooms. Bennett-Danek was proud that the Narwhals are comprised of not just gay men and lesbian players, but also several transgender and non-binary individuals as well as straight allies. Together, they all shared a locker room with no reservations, no second thoughts, and no compromises.

John Chen watching a tournment championship game inside Acrisure Arena with Tournament Director Bob Tranchida, buddy Cody Hart, and Minnesota Narwhal Levi Thomas

Bennett-Danek emphatically said, “Our Narwhal players have so much courage, strength, and heart. They’ve overcome so much adversity and societal stigma to be proud of who they are and how they identify. Our community has grown to be more than just LGBT. Some of our players have either started to or transitioned to non-binary/transmasculine. Since ice hockey is a way of life in Minnesota, we realized our beloved sport can bring together and be a safe place for all marginalized people that include asexual, pansexual, non-binary, polysexual, and allies. But in the hockey locker room, we don’t dwell on our physical differences but focus on who we are. We are a team of passionate hockey players who are all equals, and at the end of the day, humans.”

Minnesota Narwhal Dani Bennett-Danek (left) and Zeke Brian
Dowd (right) with the Narwhal mascot

Also on that first tournament day, I was introduced to the tournament Co-Directors and Founders of the Coachella Valley Pride Hockey Association, Bob Tranchida and Paul O’Kane, the Director of Public Relations John Burkland, volunteer Paul Venuti and several players from Toronto, Boston, Vancouver, and Minnesota. Yes, I had a busy day one!

San Francisco Earthquakes player Marion Lang

Tranchida and O’Kane first met and fell in love 26 years ago at the Toronto Gay Hockey Association (TGHA) International Hockey Tournament where O’Kane was an organizer and a leader, and Tranchida was a player from the San Francisco East Bay. Tranchida was then immediately smitten and told me that, “Paul is widely admired throughout the LGBTQ+ hockey community as one of the driving forces for the promotion of the sport in our community.”

Married and raising a teenage son, Tranchida and O’Kane moved to Coachella Valley several years ago. During our conversation, Tranchida offered a little history of LGBTQ+ ice hockey in CV. “In 2022, the CV Firebirds (a minor league professional hockey team) built a new 10,000 seat Acrisure Arena. The excitement of having our very own pro hockey team generated an immense amount of public interest including the large and fast-growing LGBTQ+ Greater Palm Springs community. Paul and I realized the time was right to form a local LGBTQ+ hockey association and host a tournament bringing together queer hockey players and fans and provide a safe and accepting space for all.”

Tranchida continued, “Bob, John, and I actively worked with local businesses for sponsorships and outreach opportunities with the goal of expanding and strengthening our reach to promote hockey with a message of love, inclusion, and advocacy for all marginalized people. John Burkland, our Director of Public Relations, was instrumental in connecting the CV business community to our 501(c)3, non-profit organization and tournament enabling us to hold fun, bonding social events in and around Palm Springs alongside competition. We also couldn’t have accomplished all of this without the unwavering support from the Firebirds, and donations and contributions from three NHL (National Hockey League) teams, the Seattle Kraken, the Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim Ducks. All four professional teams have gone the extra mile and been exemplary examples of LGBTQ+ community advocates. We are ecstatic and honored to have them on our side, especially the Firebirds. Our tournament this past March, held in our backyard in one of the most stunning vacation destinations, attracted teams from San Francisco, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Minnesota that culminated in championship games played on the ice rink in the 10,000+ seat Acrisure Arena.”

San Francisco Earthquakes in action at the Palm Springs International
Pride Hockey Tournament

O’Kane added, “In addition, we learned from our many years of experience that tournaments should also provide social venues and events where players, fans, and allies can forge sportsmanship and strong bonds off the ice based on our passion for the game, and where we can celebrate our similarities as well as differences. In my opinion, hockey is the greatest sport on earth, and it should be for everyone. Our association and tournament strive to give our sport a voice and be an avenue for our community to learn about hockey and get people out on the ice in the Valley.”

Towards the end of our conversation, Burkland very much wanted people outside of the hockey community to know that, just last June, the NHL banned the usage of pride tape due to complaints from a small but loud contingent of religious players. Pride tape is a rainbow-colored athletic tape introduced in 2015 to encourage LGBTQ+ youths to join team sports, but made famous in 2016 by the NHL team the Edmonton Oilers, whose members wrapped the tape around their hockey sticks as a good will gesture of inclusion and to support queer youths. Since then, for seven years, pride tape had been widely used and became the symbol of inclusivity for the sport of ice hockey until the summer of 2023.

SF Earthquakes at a tournament pool party hosted by Margaritaville –
left to right – Rune Madsen, Carl Fisher, Kieran ‘Kiki’ Flaherty, and
Eric Chen

Burkland passionately challenged the pride tape ban and said, “Although more and more LGBTQ+ athletes of all ages and backgrounds are coming out in their chosen sport, NHL meanwhile undid years of tremendous inclusive efforts with one incomprehensible sweeping ban on the usage of pride tape. NHL caved to the outspoken prejudices of a small group of players and decided to, in my words, ‘silence the rainbow.’ I don’t want any youth today to have to deal with the stigma of being queer. This is why I volunteer and get involved. To make a difference. Looking back, I believe my life would have been vastly different, but in a more positive way, if I could have come out to my teammates.”

Burkland and the LGBTQ+ community were not the only people outraged. Prominent NHL players, allies, and corporations came out in droves to support the usage of pride tape and criticized the discriminatory ban. On October 24, 2023, roughly five months after instituting the ban, NHL reversed its course under heavy pressure. Burkland reiterated, “We can’t rest. The NHL ban served as a lesson that, despite all the progress we’ve made in equality and recognition, we must be vigilant and keep fighting not just for us, but for the generations of LGBTQ+ peoples to come.”

After a whirlwind of fast-paced and exciting hockey games, fun and sexy social events including a jockstrap competition and auction, we arrived at the final day of the tournament when the two divisional championship games were played inside the Acrisure Arena on the home ice of the CV Firebirds. Although the game for the Competitive Division trophy was somewhat one-sided, the Recreational Division winner-take-all game between the Vancouver Cutting Edges and Boston Pride Hockey was decided in an ultra-exciting, nail-biting sudden death shootout.

In the modern arena, I sat next to my buddy Cody, Tranchida, and two Minnesota Narwhal players—Levi Thomas and Michael Fredricksen—watching the games at hand, praising and cheering any and every excellent play and effort. Fredricksen, affectionately known as Freddy, expressed great pride as an ally and gleamed when talking about his teammates.

“It is an honor to be associated with and call such an amazing and courageous group of people my friends and family,” he said. “Take (my fellow Minnesotan teammate) Brook, for example. This entire tournament is where she first stepped out in public as a trans woman. She looked so beautiful, so confident, and so happy, and to do it with unquestioned support, acceptance, and love from not just her hockey family but the (CV) LGBTQ+ community as well. Another teammate, Josh, lost his business in a catastrophic accident last year right before the 4th of July holiday weekend. Our hockey community immediately came to his assistance, even canceling their vacation plans at the last minute with no hesitation. These are just a few examples of true acts of compassion, perseverance, and unconditional love in the LGBTQ+ community.”

Sitting back, listening to the courageous stories of so many players, I could not help but be in awe of Tranchida, who along with O’Kane, Burkland and an army of dedicated volunteers, brought everyone together. Did you know that the curators for the Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF) created a “Marginalized Peoples” exhibit that currently displays Tranchida’s Coachella Valley Roadrunners LGBTQ+ hockey team jersey with a Palm Springs International Pride Hockey Tournament information placard?

Tranchida humbly told me, “Never in our wildest dreams did we think that our little non-profit would have an exhibit at the most legendary and hallowed place in all of hockey. The honor truly is a testament to our community’s strength, determination, and love of hockey. And seeing the Earthquakes coming to our rink, the team I was there with at the beginning … just sent chills up my spine. I was so proud of each player and so proud to have been a part of that history.”

At the tournament, I watched with great interest as the Earthquakes played against Tranchida’s CV Roadrunners team. “This particular game meant a lot to me,” said Oosterman. “It is an honor to continue the Earthquakes’ welcoming values and supportive culture that started with Bob some 25 years ago. As captain, my priorities are to provide a safe place for everyone to play ice hockey and to strive for diversity in self-identification, levels of play and age. The SF Earthquakes is more than just a hockey team to me. We are a family. We support each other, their partners, and extended family through life’s many challenges.”

Leaning against a wall, slightly out of view inside the Earthquakes’ locker room after their final game, I couldn’t help but notice the exhausted smiles, the camaraderie, the sense of pride, and the positive and supportive exchanges. They won as a team and lost as a team. No bragging and boasting, and no shaming or blaming. I took the opportunity to snap one last photo before the last player exited the locker room.

For more information about the San Francisco Earthquakes, please email Oosterman at: [email protected].

For info about the Coachella Valley Pride Hockey Association and the Palm Springs International Pride Hockey Tournament, visit https://www.cvpridehockey.org/

To learn about the Twin Cities Queer Hockey Association (TCQHA), go to https://tcqha.org/

John Chen, a UCLA alumnus and an avid sports fan, has competed as well as coached tennis, volleyball, softball, and football teams.

Sports
Published on May 9, 2024