After a few months of supporting friends playing in the Madison Gay Hockey Association and earning the nickname “hockey mom” because he always had snacks and an extra blanket, Matthew Spang-Marshall decided it was time to try playing himself.
He took to the skating, was a work in progress with everything else and fell in love with hockey.
It was the first time he’d ever participated in a team sport, and Spang-Marshall was immediately drawn in by the camaraderie and community of playing with other LGBTQ+ members. After he moved away from Wisconsin,he continued to play hockey in each new place he lived.
There was no league in Phoenix when he arrived, and the pandemic made it difficult for Spang-Marshall to connect with interested players or find more information. However, in 2021 he saw a post in a hockey player group asking if anyone in Arizona was interested in partnering with the Coyotes for an LGBTQ+ league. He replied and “kind of ran with it,” he said, and the Arizona Legacy Pride Hockey Association (ALPHA) was born.
“I remember what it felt like to play hockey in a queer group when I started,” Spang-Marshall said. “Sports did something for me that nothing else has done. I know what it made me feel like and now I get to bring that to others.”
The Coyotes have run adult learn-to-play programs, known as Growlers, where they offer discounted equipment and instruction. The program has since expanded to have Pride Growlers sessions specifically for LGBTQ+ community members. At those sessions, Spang-Marshall and other ALPHA players help coach the new skaters and invite them to join the league.
A lifelong hockey player, the opportunity to be able to coach was a particular draw for Thea Maeve, who is trans and felt like she would experience adverse reactions from parents if she tried to get involved in youth coaching.
“This gave me an avenue to coach new players and teach them how to play hockey, while not having to be scared about what other people will think about me,” Maeve said. “And so that's been nice. This is my second year of coaching clinics and I’m learning how to deconstruct all my skills and teach it to them. That’s been really interesting and fun to do.”
The partnership and connection to the Coyotes has been important and beneficial, said Spang-Marshall. He never wants ALPHA to be dependent on the NHL organization, but he’s grateful for the support they’ve provided from the beginning, from president Xavier Gutierrez down to dozens of community involvement employees working behind the scenes.
ALPHA has more than doubled in size since partnering with the Coyotes’ Pride Growlers program and Spang-Marshall said numerous Coyotes staff members have been involved in fundraising and coaching for the league.
“I just have big ups for the Coyotes in the community involvement that they have,” Spang-Marshall said. “I truly believe that they are a community NHL team. They have been great cheerleaders for us, and they made us feel like we have a home in hockey. I wouldn't be able to do it without them.”
One big difficulty ALPHA has is finding ice time. While some newer facilities have been built, older ones have closed and the demand for ice outweighs available options. The growth of the league in the future will be hindered by lack of access to ice. The Coyotes and the men’s hockey team at Arizona State University, alongside Phoenix’s large population of transplants from Northern states mean there's a very big fan base and community of hockey in the area, said Spang-Marshall, and not enough ice.
For now, ALPHA expects to run with six to eight teams next season. The league is non-divisional, with players of mixed experience on every team. Orientation to the league for new players emphasizes that more experienced players are expected to share puck possession and not take over the course of a game.
“One of the things I’ve taken on as a rule is I don’t shoot the puck,” said Maeve, who is one of the more experienced players in ALPHA. “I try to pass it to people. That’s really the way that everybody learns. If you don't pass it to somebody who is newer, they won't learn how to catch a pass and they won’t learn how to stick handle and carry the puck while skating.”
Education is at the root of ALPHA’s philosophy. Spang-Marshall wants the game of hockey to always be accessible to all people. That means breaking through what he calls the three main barriers of hockey — diversity, costand skill.
If he was going to start a league, it needed to be inclusive, it needed to be affordable and it needed to be open to players of all skill levels. The Pride Growlers program is a big stepping stone to help with that. Mel Jones, who now serves on ALPHA’s board, took part in a Growlers session and remembers she and the others she started it with were standing around the locker room with a pile of hockey gear and no concept of how any of it was meant to be worn. It was Spang-Marshall who stepped in to show them how it was done.
The education does not stop after initial learn-to-play lessons. There are three clinics built into the league’s regular season. While they do not play league games in the summer months, they do put on additional clinics that are donation-optional to help players continue to grow their skills.
Spang-Marshall encourages learning off the ice, as well. The league is welcoming to all skaters — LGBTQA+ or allies. He wants ALPHA to be a safe space where everyone can learn and play hockey. The LGBTQA+ community, he pointed out, has historically felt uncomfortable in locker rooms and that they did not fit into sports. ALPHA is a place for hockey players to be themselves comfortably and without fear.
“We go the extra step to say we’re an educational space for you to be a better ally, and for us to learn to become better allies,” Spang-Marshall said.“I had to learn how to shut up and listen and learn about people and who their true selves were and I had to learn how to change my own ideas and know that it's not about my ideas and what I believe, it's about what and who people are and to let them to be who they are.
“I just wanted to create a space where not only people who are not a part of the community can learn to be better, but how we can learn to be better to ourselves as well.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.