Hockey can be a rough-and-tumble game and culture. Here in Western New York, though, it's proving to be a frontier for gay pride and acceptance. Alex Valvo, an on-ice official whose work includes NCAA Division I games, recently spoke with WBFO about his decision to reveal himself as a gay person.
Valvo, like many Western New Yorkers, took up the game of hockey as a child. He explained his playing career began with the West Seneca Wings house beginner program while he was in second grade. In short time, though, he realized he wasn't a fan of taking hits on the ice but wanted to remain in the game somehow.
His father was a referee and soon, he was on a similar path.
"I decided to drop the stick, pick up a whistle and seventh grade was my first season," Valvo said, noting that his first USA Hockey crest was handed to him in he 2006-07 season.
As he learned the game of hockey from the official's perspective, he was more quietly learning and coming to terms with his personal sexuality. He told WBFO he had figured out his homosexuality but kept quiet for years. Finally, a couple of years ago, he decided he could no longer keep that contained.
He first revealed his orientation to his family in 2015 and then, about a year later, to his hockey referee peers. He also revealed it on his personal Facebook page and, earlier this year, published a first-person perspective for the online blog OutSports, part of the broader SB Nation blog network.
His fellow officials were quick to support him, recalled Chris Ciamaga, whose own on-ice work includes college, American Hockey League and National Hockey League games.
"You could see something was bothering him at times," said Ciamaga, who hired Valvo for games during a period ini which the former was working out of HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo. "I think since he's come out about it, you can tell he's relaxed. I think his comfort level officiating games is better. He's got a smile on his face."
The ability to be honest and open about one's sexual orientation allows them to be a better performer, said Brian Kitts, co-founder and president of the advocacy group You Can Play Project. That, Kitts suggested to WBFO, is also good for business.
"On the team side, when you're fully honest with your teammates, which is what most team require, you are able to function at 100 percent as an athlete," Kitts said. "Fans appreciate it because it's the best athlete on the ice, or on the court or on the field."
Allowing an environment where gay players could be comfortable being themselves, he suggested, is also good for the business of the sport. Inclusion on the playing surface would encourage more fans.
"A gay guy's money is as good as anybody else's," added Kitts.
On the point about better performance by a teammate allowed to be honest and open about one's self, Ciamaga says on-ice officials consider themselves a team, just like the players they're overseeing.
"Part of the love of officiating is working with your brothers and sisters, your officials, going out there and doing a good job," he said.
Valvo has heard homophobic slurs on the ice, one of the many ways the players or coaches may "chirp" amongst themselves or toward a referee. He says he has never faced a direct slur working as a college referee but has turned moments when he hears a slur into a teachable moment.
"It doesn't cut super deep for me. I've never been personally insulted that way," he said. "When I hear it on the ice, I try to enforce it as best as possible. It doesn't necessarily mean tossing a player. It could be I use it as an education moment sometimes, like hey, we don't want to hear stuff like that."
In his OutSports article, he recalled hearing a chirp from a visiting coach and some players while working a Pee Wee level game, "I'll say hi to your boyfriend in the lobby." He also recalled for WBFO an occasion while working the Bowman Cup, an annual series of games pitting high school or post-graduate prospects from Buffalo against similar peers from Rochester. The games are scouted by college and junior programs, and often times pros.
It was during one of the games Valvo heard a Rochester player use a homophobic slur. For Valvo, his response was a mix of compassion - he could have ejected the player but chose not to - and a tongue lashing.
"He got quite an earful from me after he used it," he said. "It's Bowman Cup. You don't want to toss a kid for a homophobic slur, but he got quite an earful after that."
Valvo says one of the benefits of working at the NCAA level is that the college game set strict rules against the use of gay slurs.
"They were one of the first to include penalties in the rulebook for homophobic slurs," he said. "USA Hockey, they just changed it this past rule change year to include it."
Ciamaga, meanwhile, was asked how referees are handling any chirps that may cross the line.
"If it's very loud and everybody can hear it, then maybe you've got to handle it in a different manner and assess a penalty," he said. "It's not accepted. I think that goes, whether you're working an amateur game or a pro-level game."
Valvo's story is not the first time Buffalo served as a backdrop for advancement of the LGBTQ community in hockey. In 2016, then-Buffalo Beauts player Harrison Browne, who was born Hailey Browne, revealed himself as a transgender male.
Kitts was asked whether he was satisfied by the pace of LGBTQ advancement and acceptance in sports. While there's been progress, he readily acknowledges there are many hurdles left to clear.
"I think everybody wishes that this sort of change would happen overnight," he replied. "This is social change and it's always a slow process."
Valvo, meanwhile, simply wants to be able to do his job and be looked upon not as a gay on-ice official but rather simply as an on-ice official.
"That's all I ever wanted out of this," he said. "I want to be judged on my officiating abilities. Some coaches may not think I'm the best official, but (performance) is all I want them to care about."
Ciamaga, and many other of Valvo's peers in the striped sweaters, have cared from the start.
"We are working hard and we want to do what's best for the game," Ciamaga said. "We are a team."