Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Published in Compete Magazine, June, 2011
We Are The Champions
We Are The Champions
by Jeff Kagan
When June rolls around, hockey fans characteristically have one thing on their mind: the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The cheers grow, the friendly (or not-so-friendly) expletives fly and the passion and intensity goes off the charts. What lays the groundwork for this annual mass-expression of earsplitting rivalry? One word: pride.
In Chicago, hockey fans certainly had an opportunity for showing their pride last June as the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup and brought a level of dignity and enthusiasm unseen in the Windy City in 49 years. Red and black tears dripped down the cheeks of young face-painted fans as they cried with an overwhelming sensation of happiness never-before felt in their lifetime. The Stanley Cup, and all bragging rights that accompany it, was finally theirs.
After countless victory laps around the ice in Philadelphia, the most recognized trophy in professional sports made its way to Chicago to begin the long-established sharing custom going from player to player, each one getting to take it home for a day or two to enjoy with family and friends. Over the years, the Stanley Cup has found itself in some unusual places: gleaming atop a glacier in Vancouver, splashing around swimming pools in Pittsburgh and shining with support for Canadian and NATO troops at a military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
However, this past year, the Cup took a slight detour and marched into history as it was carried down North Halsted Street in the Chicago Gay Pride Parade, shining brighter than any drag queen’s sequins. Close to half-a-million spectators looked on in awe as Brent Sopel, a Blackhawks defenseman, hoisted the Holy Grail of Hockey over his head. Alongside Sopel and his wife was Andrew Sobotka, President of the Chicago Gay Hockey Association (CGHA). Sobotka and his team had a pivotal role in bringing this magical moment to life. “It was the first time the Cup had been at a gay-themed event and it was really the highlight of the year for the CGHA”, Sobotka said.
Right after the Blackhawks won the Cup, a CGHA Board member suggested they reach out to the club and invite them to march in the Pride Parade. A week later, Sobotka got a call from Brent Sopel’s agent, Scott Norton telling him that Sopel was interested in participating in the parade as a way to honor Brendan Burke, the openly gay son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, Brian Burke. Brendan Burke was killed in an automobile accident in February 2010. Sopel’s participation and the inclusion of the Stanley Cup in the Pride Parade not only honored Brendan, but opened a door to the LGBT community. Things quickly fell into place and the Stanley Cup made its “gay debut” the following Sunday.
Since the parade, CGHA’s membership has skyrocketed and the organization’s new visibility has helped them strengthen their position to do more community outreach. “We've hosted a number of events to benefit the Chicago LGBT community. We had a very successful fundraiser for the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago, a struggling LGBT organization which serves more than 36,000 people each year, focusing on health and HIV/STD prevention.”
It is important to Sobotka, as the President of the CGHA, not only to give back to the community, but to focus his efforts on eliminating homophobia in hockey. Part of the fight against homophobia is visibility. By coming to the forefront, the CGHA has increased their reach and can more easily engage the community at large. This coming August, they will host their very first LGBT Hockey Tournament, the Market Days Classic, which will coincide with the Market Days street festivals, one of the largest in the United States.
For athletes participating in the tournament or as part of the Chicago Gay Hockey Association, Sobotka feels that it’s important to emphasize that anyone can achieve a level of success regardless of their sexual orientation. The CGHA paves the way for them to compete on a level playing field, so-to-speak. “As a gay kid growing up playing hockey I always felt out of place, but now with the CGHA, I have found a place where I can be myself and enjoy the games.” And he considers each win a minor victory for gay rights. “When we go out there as a team with our jerseys that proudly say ‘Chicago Gay Hockey Association’ and play a ‘straight’ team, then hand them their asses on a plate, it really helps the organization to earn their respect.”