Arizona LGBTQ+ hockey league leads the way, offering inclusive safe place to play

Arizona Legacy Pride Hockey Association is the state’s first LGBTQ+ hockey league, where members learn to skate and play hockey in an inclusive environment. (Photo courtesy of Nate Engle)

PHOENIX – Many hockey communities thrive in the Arizona desert, including one for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Arizona Legacy Pride Hockey Association serves as a safe space for people to be themselves while participating in a sport that, historically, has not always been inclusive.

Started by Matthew Spang-Marshall in 2021 with help from the Arizona Coyotes, ALPHA is a Valley-based adult developmental league offering clinics and a regular season schedule featuring four teams. Spang-Marshall previously played in an LGBTQ+ hockey group in Madison, Wisconsin, and was excited to do for others what was done for him by removing invisible barriers for anyone who wants to play hockey.

Like many in the LGBTQ+ community, Spang-Marshall never felt comfortable participating in organized sports when he was younger. An organization like ALPHA allows everyone to enjoy the sport they love while being themselves.

With an assist from the Coyotes, ALPHA grew from two teams to four in just one season. The Coyotes host a hockey development program, Pride Growlers, which Spang-Marshall said acts as a feeder program for ALPHA. People interested in learning how to play hockey can start with Pride Growlers and then transition to ALPHA if they enjoy it.

There are many barriers that prevent people from participating in hockey. ALPHA and Pride Growlers work to break some of them down. The cost of equipment is often a major hindrance when it comes to hockey participation, but ALPHA and Pride Growlers both offer a bit of financial support to help people get involved.

ALPHA is inclusive to everyone, regardless of sexuality, gender identity or hockey experience. Spang-Marshall said he has seen many straight allies join the organization and grow exponentially in their allyship, just by being a part of the organization.

“The impact on the community has been amazing,” Spang-Marshall said. “I see people making friends, I see people changing their minds.”

John Valentine grew up watching hockey and playing other sports, but the cost of equipment prevented him from playing hockey. Valentine was approached by Spang-Marshall who explained that Pride Growlers and ALPHA could teach him how to skate and help with the cost of equipment.

Valentine’s time with ALPHA has allowed him to play the game he loves, along with providing him with a new and diverse group of friends.

“In the queer community, it’s hard to go out to places that aren’t just queer-centric,” Valentine said. “This was a unique environment where it’s both LGBTQ+ members as well as straight allies, so I made a really diverse friend group.”

Valentine also said the age range in ALPHA has meant some of the older members have become mentors to the younger members. He has had younger members approach him about how to navigate LGBTQ+ issues, as well as just general life issues.

Young members like Nate Engle, 23, have experienced this mentorship firsthand. Engle first got involved with ALPHA as the league’s photographer but was encouraged by other members to participate in the Pride Growlers program. This season, he has been able to play with ALPHA.

Engle said ALPHA is a place where he feels comfortable being himself, something he has struggled to find.

“It’s the most non-judgmental space that I think I’ve ever seen,” Engle said.

Arizona’s LGBTQ+ hockey community is in good shape with the Coyotes and ALPHA, but not everyone involved with the NHL is on the same page. This season several NHL players and teams chose not to wear Pride jerseys, sometimes changing their minds at the last minute after initially saying they would take part in Pride Night. Some players who opted out cited religious beliefs, while others – especially players from Russia – noted their home countries have laws restricting the rights of LGBTQ+ citizens, and the players’ participation in Pride activities could have negative consequences.

Valentine, however, said Pride Nights are very important to the existing LGBTQ+ hockey community, as well as offering a branch to help bring new fans to the sport.

“Without it, we just don’t exist,” Valentine said.

Valentine said Coyotes Pride Nights have been instrumental in making hockey more inclusive. ALPHA had a large group attend the most recent Pride Night at Mullett Arena and Valentine said the support from players like Lawson Crouse, who had rainbow tape on his stick, makes a difference to the community.

“That’s cool to see, like, this guy has our back,” Valentine said.

For people like Mel Jones, ALPHA’s vice president, Pride Nights mean representation for the LGBTQ+ community. When NHL teams back out at the last minute, or make no effort to host Pride Nights, it sends a clear message of exclusion.

“People don’t realize how much harm and how much good they can do,” Jones said. “To them, it’s just a jersey but to everybody else, it’s a representation of ‘Hey, I support you, I support who you are.’”

Apart from possibly harming an entire community, Spang-Marshall believes the lack of marketing toward the LGBTQ+ community is negatively impacting business for hockey teams. While the practice of marketing to specific communities purely for financial gain has been denounced by some, Spang-Marshall believes there are many in the LGBTQ+ community, himself included, who appreciate hockey teams giving them a nod.

“I’m happy they’re marketing to me,” Spang-Marshall said. “Yes, I accept the rainbows, change your logo for a little while. That’s great, I love it.”

Representation for the LGBTQ+ community, among others, at the highest level of hockey is integral to the overall growth of the game. The Coyotes’ commitment to inclusive hockey has played an essential role in the sustained success of ALPHA. Valentine said that the financial contributions from the Coyotes are a big part of why ALPHA can exist.

ALPHA is able to serve not only as a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community and its allies but also as a physical outlet for adults. For Valentine, ALPHA enabled him to get back in shape in less than a year, all while creating a diverse group of friends in a space where he can fully be himself.

“It’s been life-changing for me,” Valentine said.

The impact of ALPHA can be seen in other adult leagues around Arizona as well. Valentine plays in leagues that aren’t as purposefully inclusive as ALPHA and has seen some players struggle with discrimination from other players. However, Valentine said a referee for ALPHA who also referees for other leagues has been sticking up for the ALPHA players and instilling a culture of respect.

“It was really cool to see someone who’s a referee, who is not a part of the LGBTQ+ community, who just comes to that league and referees,” Valentine said. “But he kind of developed a protective relationship with us and is doing a great job of making sure that we have a safe place to play even when we’re not playing with ALPHA.”

ALPHA, along with the Coyotes, is setting an industry standard for what inclusive hockey should look like. Spang-Marshall never expected to be leading the charge on something like this but is proud of the growth the organization has seen and hopes to see more organizations like ALPHA throughout the hockey community.

“I just wanted to provide hockey in a safe space because I know what it felt like for me, and I was hoping I could help others,” Spang-Marshall said. “It has turned into one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life.”

Kathryn Field KATH-rin feeld (she/her/hers)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Kathryn Field expects to graduate in December 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Field is also a sports editor for The State Press.