A good sport club can become a home away from home.
Teams can become extended family, and participation can help people express themselves in a meaningful way.
That's certainly been the experience for the more than 110 members of Southern Lights Ice Hockey Club.
Founded in 2018 as Australia's first LGBTIQ+ ice hockey club, Southern Lights is a home for people of all identities, and the recipient of the Polytan Peter Norman Inclusion Award at the 2022 VicSport Awards.
Thanks to a culture-first attitude that values the contribution of all skill levels, strong camaraderie and several Victorian Government grants, the club is moving from strength to strength in the IceHQ Beer League and modelling best practices for inclusivity in sport.
Getting LGBTIQ+ people back in the game
Kade Matthews, a founding member and coach at Southern Lights notes that it is common for LGBTIQ+ sportspeople to drop out of organised sport in their teens.
'Usually, it's due to their negative experiences in PE classes,' said Kade.
'The theory is that queer people still engage in fitness and recreation, but they're largely absent from team sport.'
'If they do re-engage, it usually happens from age 25 onward,' he added.
That's where Southern Lights comes in.
'We know there are LGBTIQ+ people who are not willing to re-engage with sport unless they know there's a safe and welcoming community waiting for them,' said Kade.
'It's that outlet we offer people through ice hockey,' he added.
Southern Lights' Beer League matches involve LGBTIQ+ sportspeople and allies over the age of 18.
Games see teams of 15-20 players take rotating 1-minute shifts on the ice.
'You can comfortably run teams of 15 players. There are 5 players rotating on and off the ice, plus one goalie,' said Southern Lights President Heather Ettles.
'This ensures everyone gets a reasonable amount of ice-time,' she added.
The result is an action-packed setting where LGBTIQ+ sportspeople and allies can re-engage with team sport and test their mettle on the ice in a friendly and safe environment.
'Because we exist, more people are involved with sport and exercise, with better mental health outcomes in the community,' said Heather.
Breaking down barriers
For founding member and Southern Lights Vice-President Brendan Parsons, the club gives people space to break down barriers and be their true selves.
Brendan also believes that clubs like Southern Lights are at the forefront of important discussions around the role of gender in sports.
'My view is that the future of community level sport is genderless,' he said.
'We play in mixed-gender games, and there isn't the sense that women players aren't a threat, or that men who might be bigger have a natural advantage,' he added.
Heather also notes that this environment also better supports transgender players, or players who are still affirming their gender, with people welcome to play on whatever team their skill level suits.
'Everyone plays on the team together,' she said.
'It doesn't matter what part of the gender spectrum someone is sitting on at the time, they can come and play no matter what.'
A helping hand
But it hasn't always been smooth skating for Southern Lights.
The club was only operational for 2 years before the pandemic, risking an end to all they had worked for.
A grant from the Victorian Government's Community Sport COVID-19 Survival Package helped them keep things alive throughout lockdowns and slide in to the new normal when rinks reopened.
Thanks to the Victorian Government's Sporting Club Grants Program, the club has been able to purchase team equipment for first timers to use when they trial the sport.
Southern Lights also received funding from the Change Our Game Community Activation Grant Program to bring more women and non-binary players into the sport.
'These grants have been amazing,' said Heather.
'I don't think we'd have the number of members we do without them,' she added.
A dream for the future
Kade, Heather and Brendan are united in their dreams for the future of ice hockey in Australia.
'We'd love to see a LGBTIQ+ team in every state, and to see transgender and non-binary people empowered into leadership positions in our club,' said Kade.
'Beyond that, we'd love to eventually reach a point where LGBTIQ+ specific teams are no longer needed,' he added.
'That level of inclusivity across the board in ice hockey and sport - that's the utopia we are working toward.'
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