Steven Thompson didn’t know what to expect when he began playing hockey in Seattle four years ago.
“I was very nervous and afraid of the unknown,” he said. “What kind of people would I come across? What kind of personalities, attitudes? Being a gay player, I didn’t know what to expect.”
Thompson said his foray into hockey has been encouraging and welcoming, but his initial trepidation gave him the idea to co-found the Seattle Pride Hockey Association in April 2019 as a way for members of the LGBTQ+ community to participate in and enjoy the sport without worries or judgment.
“I wanted to be a voice for other people that may not be as courageous as I was,” he said.
The SPHA is hosting its first big event, The Seattle Pride Hockey Classic, presented by Symetra, on Saturday and Sunday at Olympicview Arena in Mountlake Terrace, Washington.
SPHA members will be among 56 players, mostly from the Pacific Northwest but from as far away as Los Angeles, who will compete on four teams during the two-day event. They will take to the ice four months before the expansion Seattle Kraken make their NHL debut next season.
“It sold out in eight hours, and we have a very deep wait list of 50 people,” Thompson said. “This gives us encouragement and motivation to expand the tournament next year.”
The Kraken are among the organizations and businesses supporting the event. Team broadcaster and radio play-by-play announcer Everett Fitzhugh will call the championship game on Sunday.
“We’re excited that they are part of our community, we’re excited to help amplify and share their message with our broader community,” said Kyle Boyd, the Kraken’s director of youth and community development. “About a year or so ago we had our first event, it was a virtual event, and we were talking about what it meant to be a ‘non-traditional’ hockey participant in covering a variety of groups, but in particular, LGBTQ+ youth and their allies.
“We talked about what it meant for an inclusive hockey culture to look like, to feel like. So we’re excited that they have kind of taken the next step and are bringing the Seattle Pride Classic to life.”
Thompson and SPHA co-founder Joey Gale postponed holding the first classic in June 2020 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, which hit Washington state hard in the pandemic’s early months. The first confirmed COVID-19 case in the United States was reported north of Seattle in January 2020.
But with the advent of coronavirus vaccines and COVID-19 rates declining, the association decided to forge ahead with the classic this year, albeit a scaled-back event.
“Last year, we had just huge plans to have close to 100 players,” Thompson said. “We had to scale back because the state requires that you not host tournaments and large gatherings. We can skate a fine line and not categorize it as a tournament because we’re not going to having socials or mixers or gatherings of any sort.”
Still, Thompson hopes the classic will draw attention to the SPHA and its mission. The SPHA stresses it’s more of an organization that’s open and inclusive for everyone, not just the LGBTQ+ community.
“We’re hopeful we get a decent-sized, distanced group of spectators, people who may have never played hockey before,” he said. “We’re hopeful that seeing players of all different skill levels, including brand new people that have only played for a month, being part of the event will help motivate them and encourage them and make them feel that it’s a safe space to play.
“Seattle is a very progressive city and so the hockey community here is very inclusive, welcoming, supportive. We want to be an advocate for everybody — LGBT, Asians, women, Asian American & Pacific Islander. We don’t want to give off this vibe that we’re exclusive.”
The classic does give a nod to LGBTQ+ history by having the four teams named in honor of key figures in the LGBTQ+ rights struggle. Team Milk is named after Harvey Milk, the late member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the first openly gay elected official in California, assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978.
Team Johnson honors Marsha P. Johnson, a gay liberation activist and pivotal figure in the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969. Team Windsor pays homage to Edie Windsor, a gay rights activist who filed a case that led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013 that recognized same-sex marriage for the first time.
Team Cox recognizes transgender actress and LGBTQ+ activist Laverne Cox, who rose to fame for her role on the award-winning show “Orange is the New Black.”
“We wanted to kind of underscore the important roles that they played in the history of the community,” Thompson said. “We have a lot of allies playing in the tournament and so we wanted to make sure they were familiar with who these people were and the roles that they played in the rights that we have today.”