Reading Between The Lines

Two Hockey Fans Crafting Comics To Open Hockey To Those Who Feel Left Out Of The Game

 

For many people, including women, those of various ethnic groups and members of the LGBTQ+ community, the hockey world can seem like a polarizing place. Rather than shy away from the sport, two women are taking it upon themselves to write a new narrative … literally.

When it comes to playing hockey, Gaby Epstein and Ngozi Ukazu are themselves opposites. Despite learning the sport through extensive research while writing a screenplay in college, Ukazu still doesn’t know how to skate. Still, over time she not only fell in love with the sport, but became a fanatic.

Epstein, on the other hand, got hooked watching the Hershey Bears and started playing the game in eighth grade. She transitioned to goalie shortly after and continued with club hockey through college.

The two women’s love of hockey intersects at what may be considered an unconventional place – comics – but looking beneath the cover, there’s more than meets the eye. 

Ukazu’s Check Please! series features Eric Bittle, a figure-skater-turned-hockey-player, vlogger and baker, playing hockey at Samwell University. Bittle, or Bitty, is gay and the series revolves around hockey, friendship and finding himself during his four years of college. 

“I honestly think that everyone has a sport and everyone could be interested in sports, it’s just the way that sports are packaged,” said Ukazu, who grew up in Texas. “When I’m writing, all I focus on is my own interest in the sport, my enthusiasm for the game.

“As long as you see the authenticity and the genuine interest in the specifics, you can’t help but be interested. And now people are hockey fans.”

The appreciation for Ukazu’s authenticity in her stories is evident. She raised more than $800,000 on Kickstarter to self-publish her comics, and her fans’ dedication earned her a spot on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

Epstein’s Breaking the Ice series follows a slightly different format, beginning with a starter comic that breaks into two storylines. Her comic features Cam, a rookie goalie with something to prove – who may be based off Gaby herself – an icy captain and a hotshot rival. The series follows Cam’s experience through the women’s hockey world, and readers can pick which love interest she ends up.

“I just wanted to make a really silly sports comic that was also based on experiences I had growing up playing hockey,” Epstein said. “From my perspective, when I played, there was always the feeling that I wasn’t welcome as a girl, much less as a Jewish Latina.

“I’m kind of telling a story that I think was always there, to be honest. But now I get to strip away all of the pretense and just let it be silly and fun.”

While both comics are lighthearted, they also bring an aspect of visibility to a game that still struggles with issues regarding race and sexuality.  

According to a USA Today article published just last year, 97 percent of the NHL is white, while the other three percent is made up of different ethnicities. Currently, there are no publically LGBTQ players in the highest levels of professional men’s hockey.

Women’s hockey is ahead of the curve – featuring openly gay and transgender players on NWHL rosters. Still, there is much work to be done. 

Whether it was intentional or not, Check Please! and Breaking the Ice bridge the gap between the sport and those communities.

“I don’t think hockey is necessarily the wonderful, magical space that I want it to be,” Ukazu said. “But what I do think what’s happening with the story is that so many fans from marginalized identities are discovering hockey and starting to change the makeup of what a hockey fan looks like.

“It changes the culture of the population. Perhaps, as people start realizing that a hockey fan can look like a myriad of things, then maybe a hockey player can be more than just a straight, white male.”

Pulling from her own experience in hockey, Epstein couldn’t agree more.

“I think any visibility at all in media is huge. I remember that the Hershey Bears made me love hockey but I thought watching it that I was never going to be able to play. Just having something out there where you show those possibilities is helpful,” she said.

“It attracts people to the game and, in the case of my story, shows girls that they can exist in this world and not just on the sidelines.”

In a way, Ukazu and Epstein’s comics provide a more inviting vessel to learn about hockey. As the saying goes, a picture’s worth a thousand words, so at the very least, the two series are making tough stories easier to digest while providing an entertaining narrative to follow along with.

And while Check Please! and Breaking the Ice are starting conversations and opening up the game of hockey to more marginalized groups, there is still more work to do until the sport is as inclusive as the fictional stories held in the pages of comics.

“To take [hockey] to the next level, where these are not just stories but one account of a very real part of hockey, I think it’s really about talking about the importance of individuality and recognizing the differences,” Ukazu said. “It’s an issue of talking about tolerance versus acceptance versus celebration. There’s a reason why it’s called Pride Month and not Acceptance or Tolerance Month. 

“It’s the nature of hockey to not focus on the individual. But that actually, I think, is not really conducive to inclusion. We need to talk about privilege, we need to talk about race, we need to talk about why we’re not diverse. There’s a lot to discuss.”

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