Kyle Forbes went to a “hockey-centric” Fredericton high school, but the game — and its culture — were not particularly appealing to him. Then, as a student at Mount Allison, he went to see friends from his dorm playing intramural hockey.

“It was my first time actually paying attention to a real-life hockey game, and I was kind of enamoured by it. I wanted to play, it seemed super-fluid, but I didn’t consider it a thing I would actually pick up,” Forbes said in an interview.

Then, three years ago, in his mid-twenties, he learned about the Halifax Mussels.

On its website, the Mussels (the name refers to coming out of your shell) describe the team as dedicated to creating a “safe, inclusive and accepting place to play and learn to play hockey in a positive supportive environment” for “everyone including members of the LGBTQ+ community and our allies.”

Last weekend, the Mussels played in the Annual Mardi-Gras Recreational Hockey Tournament in PEI. Centred in Summerside, it’s a massive affair, with more than 125 teams registered, and games spread out over arenas in several towns. On Twitter, Forbes, a letter carrier with Canada Post, said the Mussels were “the first ever openly and proudly queer team to participate.”

An opportunity to promote inclusivity in hockey

Mitchell Wasilik is the member of the Mussels who came up with the idea of signing the team up for the tournament. Wasilik, who works in estate planning for CIBC Wood Gundy, said in an interview that his original thought was, “Let’s go play in a tournament just for the fun of it.” But, over the next few months, “the idea of it became more and more of an opportunity to promote inclusivity within the sport, and just be visible in a space that’s not traditionally taken up by queer athletes.”

The Mussels, who run most of its games and practices at the Centennial Arena in Fairview, are a non-competitive organization that welcomes everyone from those new to hockey to intermediate players. Teams change on any given night depending on who is registered to play, to maintain balance, and nobody keeps score.

“Not keeping score is obviously great, because it doesn’t actually matter who wins, because the implications of that don’t carry over to the next week,” Forbes said.

At the tournament, the team wore bright pink jerseys, with their pronouns printed on the sleeves. Their first game was on March 31, the international trans day of visibility, so they hit the ice with their sticks taped in the colours of the trans flag.

“It was an important moment for us to show solidarity with our fellow trans athletes,” Wasilik said.

A hockey team gathered and smiling at the camera before going on the ice. The team members wear bright pink hockey sweaters with blue accents.
The Halifax Mussels at the Annual Mardi-Gras Recreational Hockey Tournament. Credit: Shared by Kyle Forbes on Twitter

Having been around some not-so-great examples of hockey culture as a teen (he described kids fighting in the stands at games, and varsity players getting away with whatever they wanted since the principal was also their coach), Forbes was a bit worried about the reception the team might get. He describes himself as someone who is “not really visibly queer… So, I was sort of nervous to be in a space where we were known as being the queer organization.”

But in the end, there was nothing to worry about.

“Honestly, if anything, it was indifference. Like, OK, so you’re the gay team, I guess. Whatever,” Forbes said.

Unlike Forbes, Wasilik grew up playing hockey and other sports in Ontario, but hadn’t played hockey in more than a dozen years before signing up with the Mussels last year. He looked around at rec leagues, but was drawn to the Mussels by the “safe, inclusive, positive environment.” While he wasn’t nervous himself going into the tournament, he could understand his teammates’ hesitation.

“But a lot of their nervous thoughts were unfounded, because everybody was just so welcoming and curious about who we were, and what we were doing there,” Wasilik said.

“And, you know, why our jerseys were pink. That was the biggest indicator, these big, bright pink jerseys and people going, well, who the heck are these guys? Because everybody else is in these boring colours: black, white, red, blue. And then all of a sudden this team of pink jerseys comes in, and everybody is scratching their head. So, it was just great to see.”

Like many tournaments, the Mardi-Gras has divisions based on gender: Men’s teams and women’s teams. As an organizer, Wasilik polled members of the Mussels on what to do about that.

“I think because we acknowledged the fact that it was a very binary tournament, it wasn’t co-ed, we didn’t really get any pushback,” Wasilik said. “And we did have a number of non-binary athletes register, because they felt comfortable playing with the men’s team.”

‘We were all in this together’

Over the past few weeks, NHL pride nights have been in the news, as some high-profile players refuse to participate. Some teams, including the New York Rangers, cancelled their pride nights altogether. Asked about the importance of queer-friendly sports organizations like the Mussels in that context, Wasilik said, “With everything that’s going on in the NHL, I think it’s going to be up to everybody on the ground level to promote inclusivity...These queer sports organizations are just popping up more and more. Even in Halifax, we have so many. It’s just phenomenal to see that we’re able to do this in such a safe and inclusive environment.”

And how did the Mussels fare on the ice?

“We got totally creamed by every team we played against,” Forbes said.

But ultimately, that’s not what really matters.

“Aside from kind of being upset by not doing super well, there was a very celebratory feel to it all. It wasn’t sappy, like oh, we’re here representing our community or whatever. But it’s like… we were all in this together.”

A smiling man with a dark short beard, dark framed glasses, wearing a green shirt

Philip Moscovitch

Philip Moscovitch is a freelance writer, audio producer, fiction writer, and editor of Write Magazine.

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  1. Thank you for writing about this! As a beneficiary of the beautiful work of Colin Hodd and Zane Woodford with the short-lived Salt Halifax, I have a reminder of the Mussels’ program on my home office wall. When I’m discouraged/angry about an element of hockey/sports culture, it helps remind me that better ways are already being charted.