To say that Aimee Taylor enjoyed herself the weekend of June 18-19 was an understatement. She could be herself, letting her ever-present guard down because she was among a community of folks like her and playing the game she loves.
“It was one of the best tournaments I’ve ever been to,” Taylor said.
The Seattle Pride Classic, in its second year, is a hockey tournament that celebrates the LGBTQ+ community, bringing people together for some fun on the ice. It is one of the very few tournaments dedicated to LGBTQ+ players in the U.S.
So what made it such a great experience for Taylor?
“It was like people that were all just having as much fun as they could, hanging [out] and meeting people,” said Taylor, a 33-year-old who lives in suburban Bellevue, Washington. “Hanging out with [the NHL players], hanging out with friends, just overall, the whole spirit of the whole weekend was just, ‘Let’s have fun and be gay.’”
That was the type of tournament Steven Thompson was hoping to put on. The president of the Seattle Pride Hockey Association, Thompson originally had the idea to put on the tournament in 2020, but COVID-19 put everything on hold. In 2021 as the pandemic’s restrictions eased, Thompson and his staff scrambled to put together the event, attracting four teams.
This year was different. With a full year to plan and boosted by the NHL’s newest team, the Seattle Kraken, and sanctioned by USA Hockey, the Seattle Pride Classic blossomed. There were 10 teams that played (split into two conferences), with 14 players on each team and four games guaranteed at the Kraken Community Iceplex. The main sheet of ice, Starbucks Rink where the Kraken practice, was painted in the rainbow colors for the weekend, believed to be at least one of the first professional rinks to display the Pride colors in such a manner.
It was held just before Seattle’s Pride weekend so as not to interfere with any associated events.
“A lot of sponsors came forward and supported us with dollars of product donations to help pull it off,” Thompson said of the inaugural tournament in 2021. “Players just came out in droves. We were really concerned just with the pandemic and numbers and everything that we were going to have a really hard time selling it out. But to our amazement, we sold out all four teams in like seven hours.
“This year, we tripled the size of it. This is a huge, huge liability for us. If we don’t sell this out, we’re going lose a lot of money. But to my amazement, we sold out in like 27 hours. So just over a day, which is wild.”
Of the players who participated, about two-thirds identify as LGBTQ+, with 20 percent of those nonbinary or trans, according to an event press release. In in addition to the four guaranteed games, there was a Friday night mixer, along with swag bags, customized name plates for the jerseys and several other giveaways.
Thompson conducts a pseudo draft where he tries to balance the talent on all the teams based on info received from players. That includes mixing genders, non-LGBTQ+ players and other considerations. Sometimes, a little rebalancing is needed once games begin.
The NHL also had a presence, with former defenseman Andrew Ference and current Chicago Blackhawks minor leaguer Kurtis Gabriel on hand and even taking the ice at times to help out struggling teams. Luke Prokop, who could become the first openly gay player on an NHL contract, sent a video as his playoff season didn’t allow him to attend. Ference and Gabriel, who wrapped players’ sticks with Pride tape, also participated in the All-Stars of Pride, which highlighted 28 players who stood out over the weekend. Taylor was one of those players.
Seattle is an ideal place for a tournament of this caliber, especially with the Kraken’s debut season sparking interest in hockey.
“Seattle’s a very progressive and kind of an LGBT capital if you will,” said Thompson, whose father took him to WHL Seattle Thunderbirds games but didn’t start playing until about five years ago at age 29. “And me as an LGBT player, I was really afraid to learn how to play and get into it. And so I wanted to offer an event where people could come out and watch and see like, ‘Hey, look at all these other LGBT players trans, nonbinary, whatever the case may be, playing.’ They're not the best players, there are some great ones, but you don't have to be the best to play, right? We have a lot of beginners; I was a beginner.”
While the tournament is in its early stages, the dreams are big. Thompson said the tournament will expand next year and hopes it acts as an inspiration for cities around the U.S. to begin their own Pride hockey events. There was an extensive waiting list in case players dropped out before the event, with Thompson saying conservatively that 16 teams is the goal for 2023.
It didn’t matter which team won (Team Harvey Milk this year) or who scored the most goals. The Seattle Pride Classic was about celebrating community.
“I don’t know how they’re going to top it next year, but I know they’ll most likely get more sponsors after seeing how well this one went over,” said Taylor, who played alongside Ference and exchanged some friendly smack talk. “I can only imagine it will be bigger. I know they’re working to have way more teams and so they’ll have way more time slots as well. All I know is I’m very much looking forward to it.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
All photos from Seattle Pride Instagram