Anthony Arnoni is the senior skating king for the co-op Leyden Eagles, a four-year varsity hockey player in jersey No. 22 who shoots left-handed and plays defense.
The 17-year-old Franklin Park resident attends East Leyden High School and still is undecided on his schooling plans for next fall.
"It is very hard to pinpoint one single memory, but I would definitely say that the state hockey tournaments have been my favorite," he said.
The 2020 Illinois High School Hockey State Tournament kicks off in late January, culminating with the state championship at the United Center in March. Arnoni and the Eagles will look to upend defending Combined Division State Champion Waubonsie/Meteaa tall task, as the reigning champions have been ranked in the state's Top 25 all season and Waubonsie/Metea features some of the most skilled players in Illinois.
Arnoni's final state tournament also will be his first as an openly gay hockey player.
"I slowly started to come out to individual people, [beginning] with my best friend Julie in December 2018. After that I [told] my closest friends until [last] march when I finally made an Instagram post for everyone to see," Arnoni said. "My coming out wasn't a normal coming out. Typically, when people [come out], especially in the [sports] world, there is a stigmatism or hesitation that other people [might not face]. In my case, I had an immediate outpouring of positive reactions. My family, friends, coaches, teammates and others were super happy. I figured the locker room atmosphere would change, and I couldn't have been more wrong. Everyone was extremely [supportive]; you would have thought nothing had happened."
Arnoni said coming-out instantly changed his lifefor the better.
"School became easier; hanging out with friends became stress-free, and life just got more fun," he said. "It definitely was the right thing to do for my mental health."
And his hockey, too, which dates to his younger years skating for the Franklin Park Panthers.
Arnoni praised Leyden head coach Pat Terretta and the entire coaching staff. They talked to him after coming-out and Terretta said that if he needed anything, they will be there for him. "My coaches reassured me that they are by my side."
His teammates also have been supportive, starting with his defensive partner Daniel Determann, a longtime and close friend.
The players also have talked about off-ice relationships, good and badincluding Arnoni.
"Sitting and talking with my teammates one day and discussing our boy/girl troubles," he began, "This is one memory that resonates with me because I remember thinking to myself how, a conversation that I was never really able to participate in, I was now being listened to just as my other teammates are used to and thought of how beautiful it was that these people still cared about what was going on in my life, regardless of whether it was a boy or girl [I was attracted to].
"Another memory that comes to mind was one time when I was out with my friends. I was thinking to myself how different, yet how normal, things have evolved into within a matter of a month. Every aspect of my life had stayed the same, expect I was looking through a completely different lens."
Arnoni has received worldwide responses and support since coming-out, including coverage in the Chicago Tribune. Within 72 hours after a column about his coming-out was posted on Outsports.com, Arnoni had people reaching out to him from such countries as Turkey, Poland, Canada, Hungry, France and the Dominican Republic.
Arnoni also heard from other in-the-closet students at his school and nearby schools.
Even out CNN broadcaster Anderson Cooper reached out to him.
"About a week after my Outsports article was released, I received an email from Anderson Cooper, [who] congratulated me and told me how inspiring my story had been," Arnoni said.
"All you have to [do] in life is [be] a good person and a good friend to others," adding that sexual orientation does not matter.
Arnoni has only heard anti-gay trash-talking in one game, and was admittedly surprised. "Almost every team that we played has been respectful and not crossed the line when trash-talking," he said.
"When I was playing while in the closet, I felt like I wasn't mentally in the sport like I wanted to be. I was more worried about the way that I acted, talked, and presented myself than how I played. After I came out, I was allowed, ironically, by myself, to just play the game from raw emotion without any worries."
So, Arnoni's advice is to not worry about whether coming out is going to make others upset.
"For years people have been fighting to get where we are today and even though the fight isn't over, being your true self is the best way you can help," he said. "Unapologetically, be who you are because at the end of the day, as long you can live your life, that's all that matters."
Arnoni's coming-out was assisted by Dylan Geick, who was a wrestler at Stevenson High School in suburban Lincolnshire. Arnoni watched Geick's coming-out video on YouTube and "got my last bit of courage to do it myself," he said.
Geick went on to wrestle for Columbia University in New York.
"Last January I [was] a scared boy who didn't have a clue about the events that [were] about to unfold. I [was] desperate for someone to reach out and help, or guide me in some way, to show me that everything is going to be OK," Arnoni said. "Today, I [am] a completely new person, yet someone who hasn't changed at all. I am still the same loud, annoying, funny person that I have always been, except I now have a stronger sense of self-confidence and joy when I look into the future.
"Before my journey, whenever I would think of the future, I would be scared and shutter at the thought of moving forward. Now I am eager to take on new adventures and am not scared to go through life, waiting to see what each chapter holds. I can now see a future that all I have to be worried about is the uncertainties and unfamiliarity just as everyone else normally is.
"I no longer have to be scared to be myself."
This past fall, Arnoni was named his high school's homecoming kinga development that surprised him.
"I was overwhelmed with love from everyone in my school, even [from] kids that I don't know," he said. "Hearing everyone cheer for me made me feel happy that there is proof that times had changed, and people look past others' sexuality and judge one another off personality."
As Arnoni skates his final high school games over the coming months, his future is anchored on a tattoo he shares with his mom. It reads "EXHALE," and it's based on the movie Love, Simon.
"There is a scene [in the movie] where the mother tells her son that since he came out, he can now exhale," Arnoni said.