Gold-winning Canadian women’s hockey team scores a victory for gay athletes

Gold-winning Canadian women's hockey team scores a victory for gay athletes

The Canada women’s ice hockey team took home gold Thursday morning after beating their rivals and reigning Olympic champions: Team USA. The undefeated Canadians dominated the game from the start, taking a 3-0 lead in the first two periods and then fending off the Americans’ late scramble to end the game 3-2.

For Team Canada, the goals came from Sarah Nurse and team captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who is now the only hockey player to score in four Olympic gold medal games. And Hilary Knight and Amanda Kessel scored the two goals for Team USA.

The meeting is another chapter in the heated rivalry between teams that have monopolized gold and have met in every but one final since the sport’s inception at the 1998 Winter Olympics. The Canadians, who now have five gold medals ahead of the Americans, have established themselves as the leading force in women’s hockey — at least for another four years.

But it’s not just the Canadians’ impressive campaign for gold that has garnered them attention at the pandemic-stricken Winter Games: at least seven of their competing players are openly LGBTQ, making them the queerest Olympic team ever. (The Netherlands women’s soccer team also had seven public players who took part in the Tokyo Summer Games.)

“Women’s hockey gets more attention during the Olympics than at any other time,” Cyd Zeigler, founder of LGBTQ sports website Outsports, told NBC News. “When you see all these athletes in sports that haven’t gotten a lot of attention for four years, it’s so important that they’re out at that moment.”

According to Outsports, half of the 10 women’s ice hockey teams in Beijing have at least one outside player. But at seven, Canada’s share of players far outstrips the rest.

Canada’s Erin Ambrose, center, celebrates with her teammates after scoring a goal in the ice hockey playoff semifinals against Switzerland at the Beijing Winter Olympics on Monday.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

With every Olympics, the visibility of LGBTQ athletes grows, both thanks to individual competitors and an increase in the sheer number of athletes who are publicly out. Outsports estimates that at least 36 openly LGBTQ athletes from 14 different countries will compete in Beijing. This is twice as much as in PyeongChang 2018, but significantly less than at the last Summer Olympics, which usually have more than three times as many athletes compared to the Winter Games. Last year’s Tokyo Summer Games were estimated to have seen a record-breaking 186 openly LGBTQ Olympians.

“Eight years ago there was never an out-gay figure skater at the Olympics,” said Zeigler, drawing a comparison between figure skating and ice hockey. “Things have changed dramatically in a fairly short period of time – how brave people are willing to be in the sport.”

star power

Team Canada’s LGBTQ players include stars Brianne Jenner and Erin Ambrose.

After the Canadians’ victory, veteran forward Jenner, in her third Olympic cap, was named tournament MVP. Her path to gold included nine goals, making her the most goals in a single competition. She will add the medal to her existing collection of gold and silver, which represents an illustrious career playing for the national team, college and professionally for the Cornell Big Red and Calgary Inferno. (Jenner married her former Cornell and Calgary teammate Hayleigh Cudmore in 2019.)

Ambrose, who has been a strong defender for Canada, takes home gold in her Olympic debut. But by Wednesday night she had already made her mark in Beijing, scoring four goals and nine points in the previous six games and placing them in the top 10 of the tournament. It’s a momentous moment for Ambrose, who didn’t make the Olympic team in 2018.

Canada’s Brianne Jenner scores the team’s 10th goal against Switzerland at the Beijing Winter Olympics on Monday.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The star power of these players was an important factor in the impact of Canadian queer contingency at the Games. As Zeigler pointed out, it’s not just the number of players on Team Canada that are out, but also that some of the best players on the team — and therefore the world — are out.

This is comparable to the effect that elite athletes like Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach have had in women’s football. As Rapinoe, Wambach, and many other LGBTQ players have been vocal about their personal lives, the sport has seen an increase in queer visibility and mainstream acceptance of its queer athletes. As with the Olympics, and especially the women’s events, the last Women’s World Cup saw an exponential increase in openly LGBTQ players.

Megan Rapinoe of the USA celebrates after the USA won the women’s bronze medal match against Australia at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Kashima, Japan August 5.Elsa/Getty Images file

But not only top scorers and star players are changing the culture of top-class sport. Zeigler emphasized that there is also a lot of power in substitute and reserve players, as it allays fear that only the most well-known athletes are safe to live openly.

“If a teammate comes out and is accepted, it makes it a lot easier for other people and more likely that they will,” Zeigler said. “We can point to examples in men’s and women’s sports, but I think the Canadian women’s ice hockey team is a great example of that.”

“There is a culture there that is empowered by our athletes. And it kind of feeds itself — this snowball effect,” he said.

As in the arenas of professional and other elite sports, LGBTQ female Olympians openly outnumber their male counterparts, which has been attributed to the much more stigmatizing culture of men’s athletics. In Beijing, men make up about a third of the outsports roster of openly gay athletes, compared to a reported ratio of 1 to 9 at the Tokyo Games.

All Star Reactions

Some of the biggest names in women’s sport took to Twitter on Wednesday night and Thursday morning to offer their thoughts on the final.

After Canada clinched gold, legendary tennis star Billie Jean King, who has been a champion of women and LGBTQ athletes since coming out in the 1980s, tweeted her congratulations, saying, “Today, quality women’s hockey was shown by both teams. Her athleticism and elite level of play are outstanding.”

Meghan Duggan, former Team USA women’s hockey captain, three-time Olympic gold medalist and gold medalist, offered consolation to the losing side, tweeting, “Cheer up. You have inspired an entire nation with your performances at these Olympics and your resilience over the past few years.”

Duggan is married to highly decorated former Canadian ice hockey star Gillian Apps, who was a member of the squad that won gold medals at three consecutive Olympic Games. Unsurprisingly, Apps ditched Duggan on Twitter, posting multiple messages of support for their former team.

During the game, soccer star Wambach retweeted her wife, bestselling author Glennon Doyle, who hilariously described the game action as “soccer but on knife shoes balancing on ice cubes with big hooks in Antarctica or something.”

Throughout the finale, Doyle maintained an enthusiastic and humorous series of tweets, praising the players she dubbed “masked warriors” and celebrating moments like Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” played during an intermission.

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