NHL to SEATTLE

A Happy Little Island at Highland

Written by Jacob Galfano and edited by Gabriela Ugarte

To many, the experience of walking into an ice rink might seem universal. The senses are activated: faded paint and the pictures of accomplished skaters on the walls are illuminated by the fluorescent lights overhead; frigid air is felt first on the cheeks, the nose, and then the ears, then warmed up by the sight of familiar faces. The scent is a mix of rubber mat floor and people’s shoes. If there is a game of hockey being played, sounds might include the whistle from a referee or a puck banging off of the glass that surrounds the ice. Walking into an old ice rink as a hockey player is even more visceral: it becomes easier to pick up that out-of-breath laughter of a kid stepping off the ice after scoring a goal or the smell of musk and sweat in a locker room whose door hinges squeak when pushed open. Then there is the surge of adrenaline when putting on equipment alongside teammates… and sometimes the sound of nothing at all with enough focus on the skate ahead.

Lead organizer Carlos Segarra explaining the origins of his game as a league game is played on the venue’s main rink.

To some, the experience of walking into an ice rink might not be that easy. One does not need robust demographic data to observe that ice hockey in North America has been played mainly by straight white men, which means ice rinks are arguably most comfortable and safe for straight white men. Further, it is a relatively expensive sport to play for fun – and so the barriers to entry are costly both figuratively and literally.
This is important in Seattle for two reasons. First, ice hockey has expanded in popularity in line with the region’s tech boom – which has attracted working professionals who have an interest in the sport and can afford to play it. According to its website, the Sno-King Adult Hockey League (whose games are centered in Renton and Kirkland) has increased its number of teams from 28 in 2015 to 51 in 2018 – an 82% increase over four seasons. Second, the NHL will launch its thirty-second franchise in Seattle in 2021; with it will come new fans and new infrastructure – inevitably making the sport more appealing than ever.

But a big question remains about the new players that emerge: how accessible will recreational ice hockey in Seattle become to women, people of color, players with disabilities, LGBT and non-binary players, elders, and others at the margins of sports in America? One answer for Seattle’s hockey future might be found in its past: since 2003 Carlos Segarra has invested in organizing a weekly game at Highland Ice Arena in Shoreline with many of these players in mind.

Not a Game for Johnny Hotshot

On a Monday night at Highland, there is usually a hockey game being played on its main rink. This might be a drop-in or beer league game played mostly by white men in their twenties, thirties, or forties. But the 9:00 PM game on the venue’s small rink – which follows a weekly practice for a regional girls’ club team, the Washington Wild – is known for welcoming any new player to the sport. Segarra, who was born in Ecuador, is the game’s lead organizer and says he loves it when the Wild girls step off the ice and get excited seeing the women who play in his game and aspire to be like them when they get older.

Segarra’s fondness for youth hockey might have something to do with his past: more than twenty years ago, he would often head down to Bryant Park in Wedgwood and just shoot pucks around. One day, three kids came up and asked if they could go get their hockey sticks and join him. It wasn’t long after that Segarra was coaching thirty kids at a time on the park’s tennis court. That demand – combined with the elderly ire of the park’s tennis community – led Segarra to approach Ravenna-Eckstein Community Center about starting a roller-hockey program in their gymnasium. “This was at a time when hockey was not very popular,” Segarra joked. “They acquiesced when it consistently drew dozens of participants and it became a staple of their youth activities for six years.”

Some of Segarra’s youth on the tennis court at Bryant Park in Wedgwood, circa 1996.

Segarra had also been playing roller hockey at Magnuson Park until it shut down to make more room for indoor soccer. He had kids aging out of the youth program and friends who wanted to keep playing. “So I thought: Why not ice hockey?”

The group started playing at Highland at a time when Segarra often had to eat more than his share of the ice rental fees and when their goaltenders – if they even had one – had to wear couch cushions and baseball mitts as part of their gear. “It’s definitely easier today because you can just buy stuff online and it’s so much cheaper, but even if someone shows up without a stick or a helmet or skates, we’d cover them. There’s probably enough gear in our closet to outfit an entire team,” he laughs. “But really it’s about the generosity and the community we have created in this game. That’s what makes it so special.”

That sense of community stems from Segarra’s emphasis on safety and respect – especially for new players. “I would rather have them than Johnny Hotshot who can score twenty goals in a minute. There are plenty of games and leagues for aggressive competitive players, but that’s not us. We might have someone’s coworker who’s putting on skates for the first time, someone coming off of surgery, or someone from South America where hockey probably doesn’t even exist – and those of us who can skate just know to give them room to learn and grow.”

One of Segarra’s examples is Diana Brannan, who got interested in hockey after her son

Diana Brannan presents her hockey card pose before the game begins.

started to play in one of Highland’s youth programs in 2014. “As a Peruvian, I never thought I would end up in Seattle playing ice hockey but I wanted to play with my son,” Brannan said. “I grew up very active with sports so I picked it up quick. But Carlos and his regulars have been really supportive and encouraging and challenged me to get even better.” Brannan describes playing in the Monday game at Highland as an injection of energy and a release of stress, but also points to building community as what makes it meaningful. “Besides just being a fun way to work out, it is a time to share with friends. We celebrate birthdays with a game of hockey and we congratulate those who get married with a game of hockey and we make each other smile with a game of hockey.”

They Need to Exist

Seattle’s hockey community in general is complicated to describe. Jonathan Cunningham, who moved here in 2009 and is originally from Detroit, explains that Seattle does not have much of a homegrown scene because most of its players come from places that have more of a hockey culture and because there just are not that many rinks for young people to play on: “If kids do play hockey here, it’s not clear where they go next.” Apart from a few exceptions – professional players like T.J. Oshie (Mount Vernon) and Lexi Bender (Snohomish), for instance – Cunningham is right: few local players have made hockey into a career. Those who have made it often had to go to those other places for better opportunities; Kelly Stephens-Tysland, who helped Team USA win a bronze medal in Torino in 2006, started right here at Highland but moved to British Columbia and then Minnesota to further develop her skills.

Jonathan Cunningham (bottom row, second from left) on his youth team in Detroit, circa 1986.

Professional dreams or not – how important is it for marginalized communities to have their own spaces to play the sport? “It’s incredibly important,” says Cunningham, who works as a Program Officer for Seattle Foundation. “I haven’t experienced that since I was six years old. The very first team I played on, in the Police Athletic League on the West Side of Detroit, was black and kids of color. Everyone we played against was black and kids of color. That’s not a typical experience anywhere. For the most part [in Seattle], it’s middle-aged white dudes in the drop-in scene. I’m definitely used to it.”

With just seven rinks in the greater Seattle region – all of which are outside of Seattle proper – these spaces have been few and far between. But more are on the way; for example, the NHL practice facility at Northgate will include rinks that the community can use. Cunningham hopes that means more games specifically for players with marginalized identities: “I’d love to play with all people of color as an adult. POC (people of color) spaces are important. Gender non-conforming spaces are important too. If women have a league, that’s great. If there’s a night where it’s all women of color, given how rare that is, it would be pretty special. Spaces like that need to exist.”

Stronger Than Ever

Segarra’s game has been so consistent that Highland Arena’s managers rewarded them with a flat rate for his players no matter how many skaters show up on a given Monday: “I give them credit for being really human about this. It makes me feel that much more connected to this place.”

What happens, though, to older rinks like Highland when new infrastructure is built nearby? What happens to the history of games like Segarra’s as a result? “It will be very difficult for recreational leagues to stay away from the new rinks. I am loyal to Highland but I do worry about it being able to compete for those resources. I hope it doesn’t hit the ownership too hard in the pocketbook,” Segarra worries. “But when Seattle gets its pro team there will also be new fans who don’t know much about the sport and are curious about trying it. Ideally, there will be so many people curious about playing that Highland benefits too.”

Segarra knows that he might need to pivot and move his game if the time comes. He is not so much concerned about the change in location as much as he is about the cost of playing in a new building. He adds: “Or maybe having to change the day of the week since we’re so acclimated to playing on Mondays. There are a lot of unknowns so it’s hard to say how we’ll be impacted, but right now we’re on our own little happy island. We’re stronger than ever,” he assured.

Segarra’s conviction is a testimony to how badly Seattle’s hockey community needs to be aware of itself – both its past and its present – as it grows. In particular, rinks need to support games for those who traditionally have had little access to playing the sport. As simple as it sounds, marginalized people need safe spaces to play ice hockey. Only then will everyone enjoy that visceral, communal hockey experience that is unlike anything else in the world… even the smell of a locker room.

Jacob Galfano is an educator in Skagit County and lives in Bellingham, Washington. He started his beer-league career in the Monday night game at Highland Arena.