He used to live afraid of saying anything about his true self, which, Andrew Sobotka will tell you, is not a fun way to live. Growing up as a hockey player in conservative Grosse Pointe, Michigan, Sobotka felt the sting of homophobia almost every day he came to the rink as a promising high school player.
One day, it finally became too much.
"I basically gave up playing hockey then because of it," said Sobotka, who works in information technology in Chicago. "I went through some tough times. But things are changing."
To quote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, "The only thing that is constant is change." Fifteen to 20 years ago, Sobotka would have had no organized team to play for as an out-of-the-closet homosexual. Today, he plays defense for the Downtown Red Liners of the Chicago Gay Hockey Association, one of five gay hockey teams in the city.
Similar teams are sprouting up in most every major North American city. Two cities—Toronto and Madison, Wisconsin, have so many gay teams that they have formed their own league. Six teams are in competition in New York. Lesbian hockey players are increasingly coming out.
One of the surprising aspects of gay hockey leagues: Not everyone who plays in them is gay.
"A third of the players who play in gay hockey are straight men. We're all-inclusive," Sobotka said. "Most everyone knows someone who is gay or is related to someone who is gay. A lot of those people want to show their support, so they get involved. And, yeah, it's good hockey."
Eric Ziegler can vouch for that. A 19-year-old heterosexual from Chicago, Ziegler is a goalie with the Carolina Eagles of the United States Premier Hockey league. Last year, he filled in for an absent goalie on the Red Liners, having no idea about any of the players or the team.
"Toward the end of the game, I noticed the patch on the uniform that said 'Chicago Gay Hockey Association.' I was like, 'Wow, I didn't know that.' But there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary otherwise. Everybody on the team were great guys, and they're all my friends today," Ziegler said.
These are the kinds of things Sobotka, 29, hears all the time now. The son of famed Joe Louis Arena manager Al Sobotka—the guy who picks up the octopus on the ice in the playoffs and drives the Zamboni—he nonetheless marvels at the pace of progressive social change in recent years. The Chicago Gay Hockey Association has tripled in size in the last five years, he said.
"Just to see the difference between then and now, when I was 18 and afraid to come out, society wasn’t the same and I wasn’t the same," Sobotka said. "We don’t have trouble with other teams, calling us 'f--s' and whatnot. I think it’s trending toward homeostasis, where people do what they do and are what they are normally."
That neatly summarizes the vision of Glenn Witman, a Denver resident and one of the founders of the You Can Play Project. Witman said the core mission of the organization is to eliminate homophobia in sports, especially at the youth level—just the kind of thing Sobotka could have used. He's less concerned about the absence of anyone having come out of the closet yet in the NHL than he is of a continued fostering of tolerance for those who are gay and want to play sports without the fear he had as a kid.
"I didn't come out until I was 28," said Witman, now in his 40s, who played for the Colorado GForce team. "That's changing now. People have less fear in coming out. But the hockey culture at the higher levels remains a very traditional place. We're still in the early stages of the evolution of societal change when it comes to gays in sports, especially with men."
If Ziegler had any preconceived ideas about the quality of gay hockey, it only took him a few shifts to realize it was as good as or better than any other local men's league.
"They have total passion for hockey, and that's the main thing," Ziegler said. "It was definitely great for me to see things from another perspective. But the biggest thing is all these guys love the game and just love playing it so much."
Witman likes to tell a funny story of the time he was in Chicago playing with a gay team and a pickup game ensued at the practice rink of the Chicago Blackhawks—Johnny's IceHouse—on Madison Street. It turned out the opposing team featured several members of the actual Blackhawks. A spirited, reasonably competitive game later, and some of the Blackhawks sat with Witman and some of his teammates for a few beers.
"Eventually, we brought up who we were and they were like, 'You guys are gay?' But it was meant in the most complimentary way. It was a compliment to how good we were and knowledgeable about the game. We had a great time and they were so nice," Witman said.
Dave Farber had similar experiences once he made the decision to come out. Farber is a former hockey captain of the University of Pennsylvania who today plays for a team in the New York Gay Hockey Association. In a speech to students at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts in 2011, Farber said he spent high school "lying to myself and my teammates," finishing school still in the closet.
By his sophomore year at Penn, he came out to his teammates. Farber was scared to death at what their reaction would be. At first, the reaction was silence. Farber took that to be a bad sign for the future.
"The next day, instead of silence, my friend and teammate and fraternity brother Dan, he cracked a joke about my 'new situation.' The locker room erupted, and the air cleared," Farber said in the speech. "The environment returned to its boisterous normalcy, but absent were the usual references to 'f-g' and 'that's so gay.' That day, my friend Dan helped create an atmosphere where I would be accepted as a normal member of the team."
Sobotka's goal for the future is to do as much as he can to eliminate the torturous younger years he and Farber faced in just trying to play a game they loved, no matter one's sexuality.
"Our struggles don't have to be another kid's struggles now or in the future," Sobotka said.
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.