When Kayden Maclay woke up one day in November last year, he and his teammates had to make a decision.
In a few hours they were to be on the ice. They had traveled across the United States, Canada and beyond to meet in Wisconsin and play in a hockey tournament.
But, overnight, while they slept, the context around the event had changed. Thousands of miles away, in Colorado Springs, a familiar American story had unfolded.
A lone shooter. An automatic weapon. Hundreds of balls. More members of their dead community.
The shootout, at Club Q, reminded Maclay and his teammates why they are taking the precautions they are taking — precautions few other teams would even consider.
“We basically don’t announce where we’re doing anything publicly,” Maclay told BBC Sport.
“We can only release the specific rink at the last minute. All this violence is planned in advance, so we have to adapt.”
Maclay plays for Team Trans, an all-transgender ice hockey club. The tournament they were in Wisconsin to play in was timed to mark Transgender Remembrance Day (TDOR).
Earlier in the week, the human rights organization Human Rights Campaign reported that 32 trans and non-binary people had been killed in the United States in 2022.
The previous night’s shooting at Club Q added to the tally, with five people, including two transgender, shot dead.
“Club Q was one of those things that really heightened the significance of the TDOR moment,” adds Maclay.
“Our media had to rewrite the script that we gave to advertisers.
“We have no plan to stop this. You are in danger. How do you protect your people?”
Maclay and his team decided to continue. They played to remember the lives lost the night before, but also to celebrate those who survived.
“I like that it’s separate”
The Wisconsin tournament, like most Team Trans games, was a private affair.
Since their inception in 2019, Team Trans has primarily played internal draft tournaments with mixed teams of trans men and women playing side-by-side.
Players are graded on their hockey ability to make even games and ensure that everyone who wants to play can, without being dragged into the heated debate over whether transgender athletes can safely and fairly participate in mainstream sport given the physical differences conferred by male puberty.
For non-binary player Andi Vertz, who uses the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’, the risk of the team being isolated from mainstream leagues and opposition is less important than providing space for people to play the game. ice hockey, while also being themselves.
The TDOR tournament was the first with Team Trans for Vertz, 31, after moving to Chicago from their previous queer team.
Having started playing hockey at 18, the sport was a key crutch for them until they came out in 2016.
Vertz says: “It’s really important to have that space, to be able to control the competitiveness, not just to be there to score the most goals.
“A regular, straight hockey tournament? I wouldn’t see any fun in that. I like that it’s segregated and a good community.”
Danielle McLean, whose first memories are of walking on the ice and learning to skate at the age of four when she grew up near Boston, agrees the importance of sport for her well-being.
She began her transition at the age of 23 in 2010, before joining a women’s hockey team four years later. Now 35, she continues to play in Washington DC and wrote about her experience transitioning into women’s sportsa move she describes as “seamless.”
“I have a supportive outlet and a great group of friends. I met my partner of three years through ice hockey,” she says.
“Being able to play women’s hockey was a game-changer. The transition would be so much harder without it.”
McLean, a senior business journalist, was asked if she wanted to join the Trans team and after spotting the club on social media, she played for them for the first time in Wisconsin last November.
Even after playing hockey all her life, she knew this was a team like no other.
“I remember walking into the locker room for the first time, having the conversations that trans people have and sharing that with a locker room – I had goosebumps,” she says.
“It was a surreal and special moment. I will remember it all my life.”
“I am used to cruelty”
The locker room is often a serious obstacle for transgender people, and Team Trans can provide a way back into the sport for those who feel pushed out – sometimes as a result of traumatic events.
Andrea Sand was 10 years old when her family moved from Houston, Texas to Minnesota. She was soon sent to hockey camp to play the state’s main pastime, despite having minimal experience.
“It was my first experience of hazing,” she told BBC Sport, recalling brutal initiation rituals. “There was locker boxing; getting ready for the ice by punching each other. I had to run around the rink in my underwear in the winter.
“I stopped playing hockey for 22 years. The Trans team gave me another path.”
Now 36, Andrea first joined Team Trans at the Pride Skate event in Minneapolis last July, determined not to let the bullies and abusers of her past win.
“I actually loved hockey – skating is great training and really fun. You feel like you’re flying. If you stop doing things because you’re being bullied, you wouldn’t do anything, especially if you are trans.
“I didn’t like being kicked off the ice. The idea of showing up and everyone on my team being like me, that was great.”
Being part of a trans-only team was Andrea’s biggest selling point, whose views on how people like her are treated in society at large are uncompromising.
“I’m anxious around non-trans people; I’m used to cruelty,” she says.
“We organize our own tournament and to be toldwe are political. We make our own teams and they still hate us.”
“They try to present us as rivals”
While the club plays tournaments internally and against other teams that support it, the games still carry the inherent risks associated with one of the most physical sports in the world.
After colliding with an opponent during a match in the TDOR tournament, a player had to be hospitalized.
Footage of the incident circulated on social media and garnered negative media attention.
Trans Team responded by explaining the scoring system used to assemble the teams, stating that the injured player had recovered and highlighting the supportive environment provided by the club.
Danny Mack, the injured player, wrote on social media that his injury was the result of “a very strange fall in the boards”, that he had “had an amazing time” and would “do it again”.
“They try to present us as rivals, but you can hear the calls for doctors [in the footage]”Sable said.
“It was accidental contact, there was no malice involved. We are all friends on this team. It was an internal draft. We all paid to be there out of our own pockets.
“I took the guy’s skates off for him which led to reports that the impact knocked his skates off.
“It ended 7-1, which I’m ashamed of; I wanted the game to be called off after the injury.”
Maclay, however, defends the decision to continue playing. Concussion is a relatively common ice hockey injury – occurring approximately once every 20 games in the National Hockey League (NHL).
Team Trans was also playing for more than themselves.
“We had to decide whether it was worth continuing to play, whether to cancel the tournament,” he explains.
“We decided to play because what we were doing this weekend was important. It was at the beginning of the second period – then between the second and third period, all the players came on the ice to mark the Day of the remembering transgender people.
“We had a long moment of silence and then a huge group hug. We had people from all over the world in this big family.”
“Not feeling like a stranger is huge”
Maclay was born in Wisconsin, where he joined his first hockey team. After transitioning at the age of 18 – “my dad was on board right away, we call my mom the ‘most improved player'” – he plays for the queer team Pittsburgh Tigers and is also treasurer of the Trans team.
“Team Trans saved my life,” says the 26-year-old sales engineer bluntly. “It’s a feeling that many of us share.
“Now my life is work, hockey, family and friends. Hockey has given meaning to my life.”
Team Trans relies on donations to allow the club to travel across the country for tournaments, which includes high-level NHL support.
In addition to the money, the NHL also supported the team with unequivocal statements of support on social networks.
“Never in a million years did we expect this,” Maclay says. “No hesitation – the NHL couldn’t have been any clearer.
“We see a lot of organizations that are united, but less explicit, leaving room for maneuver to get by.
“The NHL has been very clear, and that’s one of the biggest supportive things I’ve seen happen for the trans community, especially given the toxicity.”
“It’s a game-changer,” says McLean, who believes NHL leadership can help change mindsets in the broader hockey community.
“I grew up watching the Boston Bruins, cheering on all those players growing up. The NHL is the face of hockey.
“Knowing that we have support at the highest level and that our love is embraced by the wider hockey community is everything.
“What trans people want is to live our lives and be accepted by society. Not feeling like an outsider is huge.”
“I have never cried so much during a hockey game”
In contrast, the attack at Club Q sowed fear and isolation in the transgender community in the United States.
“I could imagine myself in bars similar to the one in Colorado,” Vertz says. “It was very weird and scary because it could easily have been here.”
The next day, on the ice and in the huddle, the Trans team was even bigger.
“It’s not something you realize until you’re in that space – everyone hanging out together being trans and non-binary – you don’t realize you’re missing that feeling until it’s gone. occur.
“It’s amazing to recognize this space.
“I have never cried so much at a hockey game in my life.”