Hockey pucks were sliding across both rinks at Augsburg Ice Arena in Minneapolis. Beside one, fans in the stands double-stomped a "We Will Rock You" beat.
The adjacent rink looked essentially the same: The game's lively play was peppered with breakaways and blocked shots. After a short break between periods, the team in the rainbow unicorn jerseys circled the bench, reached their hands toward the center and cheered: "One, two, three, Team Trans!"
Team Trans Twin Cities is the first regional chapter of Team Trans, a hockey team believed to be the inaugural American-based sports team composed entirely of transgender and nonbinary players.
"The main purpose was just to create a space for people to go and normalize a hockey experience," explained Annie Bell, the president of Team Trans Twin Cities, who has been skating since age 3.
The initial Team Trans assembled in the Boston area in 2019. It drew trans men and trans women, as well as nonbinary players. Some newbies were still perfecting their backward skate, but a few had played in professional women's hockey leagues.
The Massachusetts-based team is a collective of players from around the world who come together for games. After the team played a series in Madison, Wis., in late 2021, a few of its Minnesota skaters decided to form a Twin Cities chapter, which skates two to three times a week during peak hockey season.
Bell notes that people with nonconforming gender identities face difficulty navigating day-to-day interactions and that the team gives them the chance to take part in an activity they love, while being their authentic selves.
"Anything from changing in the locker room, to taking a shower, to getting ready with folks they feel safe with is a big factor," Bell said. "But, also, being able to get on the ice, and have a team, and be committed to something, and continue to do the thing they want to do."
Showcasing trans joy
It's rare to find openly transgender athletes at the highest levels of sports competition, especially in team sports. At the recent Tokyo Olympics, for example, there were three known trans and nonbinary athletes competing. (A 2022 Pew Research Center survey suggests that 1.6% of U.S. adults are transgender or nonbinary.)
Sports leagues, from youth to professional, set their own policies about transgender and nonbinary athletes' participation, which range from insisting that athletes use the gender on their birth certificate, to deferring to the athlete's chosen gender. There's little consistency in the policies. The main controversy is about whether trans women competing in women's sports have a physiological advantage.
Anna Posbergh, a fellow with the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, researches trans eligibility policies, looking at concepts of fairness, protection, human rights and how scientific studies are parsed. She said that research and public discussion of the subject is relatively new. "The first policy on trans inclusion wasn't issued until 2004, so we're still in the first 20 years of policies," she said.
While the National Hockey League (NHL) has publicly, unequivocally, expressed its support for Team Trans, the league's social media posts have drawn commenters expressing hatred toward the team for doing nothing more than playing recreational hockey.
To Bell, Team Trans isn't trying to make a statement. "Except for the fact that we're out here trying to have some fun — and look as good as we do in our jerseys," she quipped. "It's about constantly showcasing trans joy."
Finding a place
The Twin Cities group's 100 players, ages 18 to 50s, include 30 to 40 regulars dedicated to skating year-round.
The team splits into groups by skill level to scrimmage or play against other teams from college or adult recreational leagues. It also occasionally travels for games, as far as Seattle and Nova Scotia. In June, the team will play exhibition matches at Parade Ice Garden in Minneapolis during the Twin Cities Pride Festival.
Paige Rainer, a captain of the advanced team, started skating "with the smallest ice skates made," she said, and played through high school on boys' teams. After college, Rainer played one season in a mixed-gender adult rec league made up primarily of men.
But Rainer had never really felt comfortable in locker rooms and, once she started transitioning, she couldn't see returning to the adult rec league. Rainer considered joining a women's league, but that didn't seem like a good fit, either.
When Rainer attended Team Trans Twin Cities' first skate, it was the first time the locker room vibe felt OK. "It's a place where you don't feel judged, and you can be yourself, and everyone just gets it, and they get you," she said. "Everyone's experience is a little different, but we all have this shared thing, which is pretty rare in the wider world and sometimes stigmatized."
The camaraderie of being on a team and working together toward a shared goal can create stronger connections than participating in a general affinity group, Rainer noted. "Doing an activity together is going to bind you a lot more than just flopping down in a circle and trying to force conversation," she said. "Shared experiences bring people together."
Over the past year, Rainer has enjoyed seeing the team jell, as players come out of their shells, gaining confidence not just in their hockey playing ability, but in themselves.
Danny Maki, who runs Team Trans Twin Cities with Bell, says he hopes to see other chapters of Team Trans start up, so the teams could play one another.
After taking time off from the sport in adulthood, the longtime hockey player said the team helped him get back to an activity that has been foundational to his well-being.
"Team Trans is a way for me to play the sport I grew up playing, a sport that saved my life many times."