As each of the NHL players repeats a simple message in a powerful public service announcement released Sunday, they add their voice to a growing movement aimed at creating a level playing field in the sport, regardless of sexual orientation.
It’s the brainchild of Patrick Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and the son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke. He created the “You Can Play” project to help eliminate the homophobic culture found in some corners of hockey.
In doing so, he called on powerful allies to help get the message across — and more than 30 NHL players responded by taping spots that will air throughout the remainder of the season.
“The messages are very simple, yet meaningful,” Patrick Burke said in an interview. “It’s variations of the idea that all they care about is winning, all they care about is having the best teammates and it doesn’t matter if the best teammate happens to be gay or straight.
“That plays no role in whether or not they would accept their teammate and that they would all be welcoming and supportive of an openly gay teammate.”
For Burke, the cause is close to his heart. His late brother, Brendan, made headlines when he came out publicly in November 2009 while serving as the manager of Miami of Ohio University’s hockey team.
Brendan Burke was killed in a February 2010 car crash at age 21, leaving the family to carry on his legacy. Brian Burke has been active in gay rights initiatives around Toronto and marches annually in the city’s gay pride parade, while Patrick founded the “You Can Play” project along with Brian Kitts and Glenn Witman, who run a Denver-based gay hockey team called GForce.
In its mission statement, the “You Can Play” project says it aims to ensure “equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.”
That ideal comes directly from conversations Patrick Burke had with his late brother.
“When Brendan came out it didn’t change anything between me and him,” said Patrick. “It turned into a great moment for us, a great bonding moment for our family because when something like that happens when you’re not expecting it, you have to evaluate: ‘What do I look for in a brother? What do I look for in a friend?’
“We had a very open relationship where I asked him a lot of questions because I didn’t know anything. … And hearing some of the stories that young LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) athletes face really touched me and made we want to do something in Brendan’s honour to help those kids.”
The Burkes reached out to all 30 NHL teams in an effort to get support from players and received a strong response. Eight of them taped spots during the all-star game in Ottawa.
The first PSA — dubbed “The Faceoff” — debuted on NBC during Sunday afternoon’s game of the week between the Bruins and Rangers. Others will be rolled out over time.
“I am grateful to the NHL community for their support (and) acceptance,” Brian Burke wrote on Twitter over the weekend.
Hockey has yet to have an athlete come out and declare that he’s gay. Patrick Burke is optimistic the day is coming — “statistically, we have gay players in the NHL,” he said — and thinks it will not only serve to help that individual but also a large group of young players in need of a role model.
The issue has received a growing amount of attention. Former New York Rangers forward Sean Avery appeared in an ad supporting gay marriage last year and a big wave of players have added their support with Patrick Burke’s new initiative.
It’s a big testament to his brother’s legacy.
“I think the biggest thing Brendan did in the hockey community — both in the NHL and lower levels — is that he got people talking about the issue,” said Patrick. “For a lot of people that aren’t familiar with LGBT issues, it’s kind of an uncomfortable conversation to bring up at times. What Brendan did when he first came out, he gave a lot of people a reason to talk, a reason to ask questions, a reason to find out more about LGBT issues in sports.
“So I think he made a huge impact. I’m not sure it’s something that we could ever really measure, but I know this project wouldn’t be here without him.”
The public service announcements can be viewed at http://youcanplayproject.org/
Story courtesy Sportsnet.ca