My earliest life memory is the 1997 Stanley Cup parade.
I’m a “legacy” hockey fan. My parents came to Detroit as kids. My dad went all-in on sports, and my mom was all-in on Red Wings player Steve Yzerman. It was fate that they met and passed their passion for hockey down to their six kids.
I loved watching my brothers play street hockey, seeing Joe Kocur at my uncle’s restaurant on off days, attending Detroit Vipers IHL games, and admiring our family’s growing collection of memorabilia.
As a young girl unaware of her queerness, the draw was the action and passion, but traditional hockey culture made it hard to foster my love of the game.
Overemphasis on metrics, blunt dismissal of newer or uninformed fans, female fans almost being required to “prove” their fandom, and outright disdain for anyone deemed “other” – It all sapped my enjoyment of the great game.
Despite Detroit being firmly in dynasty territory at the time, my love and interest evaporated around age 10. It was clear that I didn’t belong and my perspective wasn’t valuable. If I didn’t know everything there was to know, I might as well kick rocks.
So I did.
Rekindling her passion for hockey
For 15 years, I paid little attention to hockey, only consuming crumbs of news.
Sometimes it takes something major to make you stop and reconnect with your inner child. For me, almost losing my sister during a global pandemic, as well as a boatload of therapy, were catalysts to the rediscovery of my love of hockey.
I realized I had been living life on standby mode and not engaging with or directing my passion towards the things that make me feel deeply alive and human. That renewed self-focus, and Youtube clips of the legendary Red Wings enforcer Bob Probert fighting, brought me back to the little girl who loved hockey.
After decades of being only peripherally aware of what was going on in hockey, I was at a loss for where to start finding information that made sense for fans and me to commiserate with.
So I did what many netizens do: I took to Twitter to find my people. Finding them was challenging and a bit scary. Eventually, I was welcomed by a particular sect within the Red Wings Twittersphere.
The meme fans. The kind of people to take an off-the-wall caption and throw it onto a picture of Niklas Kronwall with cupcake and rainbow stickers for pizzazz, or set clips of Henrik Zetterberg mentoring Dylan Larkin to an ABBA song and make you cry bittersweet tears.
The people creating this amazing content on Twitter gave me the space to enjoy hockey the way I like to, out of human interest and not analytically.
Being born into hockey fandom, and finding my way back to the new culture, gives me a unique perspective from both the veteran fans and the newbies. The beautiful blend of Internet jokes and highlighting narratives brings us together in a way that the NHL’s marketing has never – and may never – replicate.
A lot of what is called popular culture is dictated by youth, particularly young femmes. From Beatlemania to the Twilight craze, it’s the same phenomenon that catapulted K-pop from a regional musical genre to a global juggernaut with a complex fan culture attached.
Much of that culture and the Tumblr fandom model provide a template for the hockey subculture bringing in new female and queer fans.
A hallmark of K-pop that has become a mainstay in “gay hockey Twitter” is the fancam. What started as a way for fans to flex their proximity to idols in concert by posting self-shot footage has evolved into an art of video editing and narrative crafting.
What this new NHL fandom looks like on Twitter
Instead of a 20-second iPhone video of BLACKPINK, we get beautifully curated montages of Alex Nedeljkovic making incredible saves set to his favorite song from the Lord of the Rings. Electrifying footage of Jujhar Khaira fighting over a Teach Me How to Dougie and Punjabi mashup.
Sometimes there’s also a thirst trap of one of the exceptional pieces of eye candy in the league.
In addition to the fancam there are also fan fiction, GIFs, and memes that merge the hockey sphere with internet culture. These formats can make you care about players who retired before you were born and teach you about the “vibes” of teams you were never interested in, giving rise to the previously forbidden multi-team fandom.
From a TRON-vibe series of artworks chronicling the Stanley Cup Final, to a beautiful reimagining of the Metropolitan Riveters jerseys, player character study sketches, and a tender comic of the legacy of my beloved Red Wings.
The traditional hockey fan doesn’t always understand or respect the niche that female and queer fans have carved out for themselves, which has grown into a safe and often unhinged community. This can lead to friction and isolation from the established hockey world who don’t get it, but casual and prospective fans often relate to and enjoy it.
Bite-sized content gives easy access to hockey’s essence without overwhelming them, lowering the barrier of entry.
It’s enticing for newcomers who may be intimidated by learning the rules and metrics valued by established media. Seeing an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere feels like how we enjoy the sport is okay and valuable. Teams and players presented in a way that’s familiar to us remove the fog of confusion and intimidation providing a solid foundation for us to build knowledge.
There is one important crossover between this sect of fans and the more traditional, catered-to-male hockey fans. The gateway drug, if you will: YouTube compilation videos.
You name it: hits, fights, goals, weird plays, trick shots. Providing the best of the best is foolproof in getting people interested, and this is where we find some common ground.
To tell a compelling story is to share a piece of your soul with someone and allow them to give a piece of theirs back in return. Tales of triumph and struggle provide the emotional stakes necessary to capture hearts, creating the legendary moments we remember and an unshakeable love for the sport.
The average hockey-illiterate person doesn’t know or care about WAR ratings, but they will care about the 1997 Red Wings breaking a 42-year Cup drought with the Russian five. To then be devastated only days later by the tragic accident that ended Vladimir Konstantinov’s career and almost took his life. The love of their friend and teammate spurring them to win the very next championship and birth a dynasty.
Show an unsuspecting person of color a new world by telling them about the precedent-setting all Black forward line of Mathieu Joseph, Gemel Smith, and Daniel Wolcott playing for Tampa Bay.
Give hope to any queer misfit who doesn’t feel they belong by telling them the story of Luke Prokop proudly proclaiming that he is gay and isn’t ashamed of who he is and the ensuing tidal wave of love and acceptance that engulfed him from fans and teammates alike.
Women and LGBTQ people are finding their way to hockey
I guess I can see why some people — particularly the people in my and my friends’ Twitter mentions who are less than kind — might not get the recent upswing in female and queer viewership.
Hockey has never catered to this demographic, so with no “insider knowledge” of our little enclave, there’s no clear reason for this upward trend. The speculation is predictably surface level, that we think the men are hot (reductionist, irrelevant, uninclusive) or the decline in fighting (sexist to assume that our delicate constitutions can’t handle violence).
Instead, women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disabled people, and all intersections of those identities have done what we have always done: carve out spaces for ourselves where we can safely enjoy life and our interests.
The diversification of the NHL fan base and culture is due to the work of talented editors, artists, and meme makers.
Without these individuals speaking the language of the unconventional fan, there would be no new age of hockey fandom and there would be no space for the unheard to thrive. There would be no one pushing for pride nights, no women’s history nights, no Manon Rheaume playing goalie in the All-Star weekend skills competition, no Black Girl Hockey Club pledges, and no former Stanley Cup champions seeing and appreciating our humor and earnest love of the game and adopting scrappy gay young women (shoutout to Darren McCarty).
Based on some of the responses to the NHL’s official Twitter account to any of their inclusive initiatives, many hockey fans would see the eradication of these other groups in hockey as a good thing. The message of some seems to be very clear: You’re not welcome here.
But as always, we continue to make our own space because those who aren’t considered the “right kind” of fans have and will always endure and care for one another.
They say “hockey is for everyone,” which isn’t always true in my experience. But I do know one thing for sure: Hockey is for the girls and the gays… because we are for each other.
Adriana Sinishtaj is co-host of the Unsung Octopi podcast. You can follow her and the podcast on Twitter.
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