Hockey is for Everyone

Photo by Chad Isaiah.

In 2008, Mike Marisco and Adam Knoerzer met on the ice. The two cis-gender gay men were both living in New York City and playing hockey with the New York City Gay Hockey Association (NYCGHA), an adult league for LGBTQ+ players. Knoerzer was wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins hat, and Marisco sidled up to him and said, “That’s my team!”

Their meet-cute spun out into a full-fledged romance, and in 2011, they decided to move to Pittsburgh together.

“It was a mutual decision, and it was conveniently located for work and our respective families,” Knoerzer said.

In 2015, not only did the two devout Penguins fans marry, Marisco and Knoerzer held their wedding at the PPG Paints Arena (at the time, it was the CONSOL Energy Center). The grooms took center ice, but the reception was in the Lexus Club, a sumptuous space with large floor-to-ceiling windows and gorgeous views of the Pittsburgh skyline.

But Pittsburgh, unlike New York City, Toronto, and several other metropolitan cities, did not have a gay hockey association. The avid hockey fans wanted a Queer-friendly hockey team in their hometown.

“We wanted a competitive space for LGBTQ+ players to play without fear of being hassled or judged because of their sexuality,” Knoerzer said.

Marisco and Knoerzer formed the Tigers, an LGBTQ+ team. “We got friends and family together. Friends of friends. We even reached out on Craigslist and found players from across the LGBTQ+ spectrum,” Knoerzer said

 “We wanted a safe, inclusive space for players like us,” Marisco added.

It started with a simple desire to play hockey, but it’s grown. Knoerzer said, “We started with seven or eight players. Now we have twenty to thirty players.”

One of the Tigers is Kayden Maclay who also plays on Team Trans, a national all-Transgender hockey team.

“There’s talk about expanding the Tigers. We’d like to have beginning, intermediate and advanced teams out on the ice,” the Wisconsin native said.

The Tigers play against other adult leagues in the Tri-state area and, thus far, no team has refused to play them. Knoerzer said, “We go up to Canada in October and play against other LGBTQ+ teams from Montreal and Toronto.”

The Toronto and Montreal Gay Hockey Associations team up to host a unique LGBTQ+ hockey tournament, the Coupe Canada Cup (previously called the Eastern Canada Cup). It rotates between the two cities during Canadian Thanksgiving, which takes place in early October. 

Pittsburgh’s first gay hockey team has been around for a few years, but their visibility has increased recently, and the Tigers give a lion’s share of the credit to Brian Burke, former President of Hockey Operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins and, who along with his son Patrick co-founded the You Can Play project, an organization dedicated to ending homophobia and transphobia in sports. Burke’s son Brendan, who died in a car crash, was a gay athlete and hockey enthusiast who advocated against homophobia in hockey.

“There was a culture in hockey that would have discouraged a player from coming out, but I think that’s all changed,” Burke shared in a recent interview. “I remember talking to my players about it in Toronto. The first guy who comes out will be welcomed. The whole key is [the player] who can help us win. It doesn’t matter who you go home with. That’s the whole mission of You Can Play. It doesn’t matter who you go home with, what religion you are, it doesn’t matter what color you are. If you can help us win, you can play.”

“The Penguins have done a lot to support us,” Marisco said. Knoerzer added, “We are visible at Pride Night at the Pens games, and we marched with the Brian Burke and the Penguins at Pride.”

In the 2020-2021 NHL season, the Penguins organization hosted the NHL’s first-ever joint Pride Game with the Buffalo Sabres to celebrate our LGBTQ+ community. The partnership continued, and Pride Night at PPG Paints Arena is becoming an annual event. The Tigers even have a dedicated spot on the Penguins Foundation social media platform at penguinspride.com.

In 2021, during the first Pride game in Pittsburgh, then-Penguins forward Jared McCann said, “I think who you love or how you identify, it doesn’t change who you are as a person. We want to serve as allies and help create confidence and comfort for everybody.”

“Growing up, I didn’t play hockey,” Maclay said. “It wasn’t a safe space for a queer kid.”

The Tigers are serious about making it a safe space for everyone. While they play at the UPMC Lemieux Center in Cranberry, they have held open skates and events at the Hunt Armory in Shadyside.

In February, Mandie Spudich founder of the LGBTQ+ Youth Craft & Social Group of Westmoreland County took the club to the free Ice-Skating Night at the Hunt Armory hosted by the Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation and PFLAG. The LGBTQ+ Youth and Craft Social Group skated with the Tigers.

“I heard about the event, and I thought it was fantastic,” Spudich said.

Spudich, who drove from Irwin to Shadyside with a group of teens in her car, added, “Some of the kids have never skated before!”

The team is building enthusiasm for their favorite sport. Marisco enjoyed skating with the young adults. He joked, “We were all young once.”

The Tigers are aware that hockey is an expensive sport and not easily accessible.

“We have some donated and used equipment,” Knoerzer shared.

There is a social component. The Tigers have watch parties and regularly go to PPG Paints Arena to watch the Penguins.

“I’m a Seattle Kraken fan, but I’ve come to enjoy the Pens games,” Maclay admitted.

“You want to play the sport, you can play the sport,” Knoerzer said.

“Join us,” Maclay added.

If you want to play, you can find the Tigers at www.pittsburghgayhockey.net.

Michael Buzzelli is a stand-up comedian and sit-down author. As a comedian, he has performed all around the country, most notably, the Ice House, the Comedy Store and the Improv in Los Angeles. As a writer, Michael Buzzelli has been published in a variety of websites, magazines and newspapers. He is a theater and arts critic for 'Burgh Vivant,’ Pittsburgh's online cultural talk magazine. He is also a Moth Grand Slam storyteller and actor. His books, "Below Average Genius," a collection of essays culled from his weekly humor column in the Observer-Reporter, and his romantic comedy,  “All I Want for Christmas," are on sale at Amazon.com. He is working on a LGBTQ romantic comedy called, “Why I Hate My Friends.” You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter. (He / Him / His)