The Ninja Penguins take pride in their inclusivity.
They’re a co-ed group of players who range from beginners all the way up to 10-year veterans who are gay, bisexual or pro-GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender).
Oh, and coming into this season, they may have never met one another.
Colin Knueppel, the Ninja Penguins’ team captain, has played in traditional “beer leagues,” but said he really enjoys skating with the team in the Madison Gay Hockey Association (MGHA) in Madison, Wis.
“There’s a feeling of organization there that you don’t get with scrimmage groups for sure,” said Knueppel, who has played in the MGHA for seven years. “It’s never been a beer league. Also, having the mix of gender, age, sexuality, it’s a very different group than what you’d normally get with just a bunch of guys in a league.”
The MGHA is in its eighth season and is the largest gay hockey league in the United States. Similar leagues in larger cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have around 50 players and are made up of primarily men, noted Ninja Penguins assistant captain Jill Nebeker. MGHA has eight teams and 120 players and doesn’t discriminate over sex.
“It’s more common than people think,” Nebeker said about LGBT-friendly hockey leagues. “It’s pretty unique to have one of this size in Madison and that it’s so strong.”
The Ninja Penguins are a team that has a greater purpose than just getting ice time every Sunday night of the season and competing.
“Although we keep score and we have playoffs, winning is not what we’re after,” Nebeker said. “We’re about developing people’s skills, and then a second part of our mission is to create a social environment.”
The Ninja Penguins take part in outreach programs around Madison and ran an open skate fundraiser last season from which all the money that was collected was donated to the AIDS Network in Madison.
“Hockey is a big part of it, but it’s also about connecting a community,” Nebeker said.
Every year the MGHA starts its season in September, and instead of traditional league hockey where teams are formed from a group of friends or co-workers, the MGHA holds a scrimmage to evaluate every player’s skills. The skaters are rated on how well they play, and then teams are created to be as equal in ability as possible.
“We take people who, I’m not even joking, fall down at the faceoff,” said Nebeker, who has played in the MGHA for five years and is the association board secretary. “They’ve never skated before, so it’s a wide range of skill level.”
After its team was constructed, the Ninja Penguins picked their team name. A number of the team members are into animation and online games, so Ninja Penguins was the popular choice because its gaming innuendo. To go a step further with the team name, the Ninja Penguins players decided that instead of wearing their last names on the back of their jerseys they would use a sound effect such as “bang” and “kaboom.”
The Ninja Penguins have 13 players on their roster, five of whom are women, and range in age from 30s to mid-40s. There are skaters on the team who have never played any sport before in their lives and also athletes who used to compete in soccer but wanted to try hockey.
With a wide range of skill sets on the team, there is a great deal of on-the-ice coaching, and teammates are very supportive of one another. The Ninja Penguins were only able to practice a couple times prior to league games starting, so it was learning on the fly all season. But there was a lot of progress made by the inexperienced skaters.
“It’s fun to watch as the season goes on, you encourage, you help with various strategies and then they start stealing the puck from the better players and getting where they need to be,” said Knueppel, who is a team coach as well as captain. “It’s an interesting aspect of the league [having mixed skill-set teams]. It’s not perfect, but it certainly makes for interesting experiences for new players.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.