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    Photo Credit: courtesy of the Climax

Gay hockey team sizzles on ice

By Damin Esper

Andy Winsett didn't start playing hockey until he was 30 years old. He got into the sport when his partner's son started playing.

"We would go to the games and be the hockey dads and have a great time with that," Winsett said. "I said, 'Oh that looks like fun.' I started skating and did the Hockey 101 clinics."

The end result of Winsett's interest is the Colorado Gay Ice Hockey Association, otherwise known as the Colorado Climax hockey teams. The Climax compete in Denver area adult leagues, which are the largest in the country. The Climax also sends teams to tournaments all over the world.

And it has secured a major sponsorship — Coors Light.

"Our mission is to provide a playing environment that's comfortable for GLBT people," said Winsett, president of the organization. "That's really the primary mission. Having fun is way up there at the top."

The Climax program is made up of about 50 players spread over three teams. The Colorado Climax is the top level with the Colorado Climax Too for intermediate players and the Colorado Climax Evolution for beginners. Although most of the players are gay and lesbian, there are plenty of "friends of" on the team as well.

"It's really been a great mix over the last five, six years," Winsett said. "We've found that being at the same rink for six years, people on other teams like playing against us, they see we don't yell and scream at each other like some teams and they'll come to us at the end of the season and say, 'Hey, do you have room for more people next year?'"

Gary Skogen is one of the advanced players – he's originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada. You can tell because when he talks about the Out Games, he says, "Oot Games."

Skogen grew up playing hockey from the age of 7. Now one of the captains of the Climax, he said there's a rink for every 150 people in Winnipeg. Denver used to only have a couple of rinks, Skogen said. But in the last 10 years, since the arrival of the NHL's Avalanche, rinks have sprouted up all over the city.

But that doesn't mean the adult teams don't have the same problems as teams have elsewhere – getting ice time is extremely difficult. Figure skaters get most of the ice time in the morning and youth teams get afternoons and evenings. Games often aren't started until 9 or 10 at night.

In 2000, when the Climax played its first game in Seattle, Skogen was there. He was living in Vancouver, but was about to move to Colorado so he drove down to play in the game.

Skogen played for the Cutting Edge – another gay team – when he lived in Vancouver. He said playing for a gay team is simply more comfortable for him.

"It's just the comraderie and the ability to be open about yourself around other players," Skogen said. "You don't worry about people using slurs on your own team and not having to feel oppressed."

Denver has one of the highest level adult leagues, according to Skogen.

"They wouldn't be as high level as playing in Toronto or Detroit, but it would certainly be up there," he said.

Skogen said the Colorado league does a good job policing intolerance. Although the very occassional problem creeps up. An ex-girlfriend of a Climax player once hung a sign at the rink that said, "You can't spell climax without a G."

"We were trying to figure out what that meant," Skogen said with a laugh. The sign was taken down.

The seasons run from September to April and from May to August with teams playing about one game a week. The Climax has won the winter league four times in five seasons. There are only a few weeks off from the regular league schedule, but many of the players will travel to various tournaments during those periods.

"We play in tournaments (gay and straight) all around the country," Winsett said. "We try to participate firstly in all the gay tournaments across the country and Canada." The Climax earned a silver medal in the recreational division at the 2002 Gay Games in Sydney, Australia. This year, three Climax teams went to the Out Games with the competitive division team earning a bronze medal.

The Climax also co-hosts a tournament with the Los Angeles Blades. The two programs alternate years as host.

Ultimately, Winsett was right when he was at that youth game years ago. Hockey is a lot of fun.