Grange: Burke set for gay rights fight in Sochi

Brian Burke has never been shy to speak his mind. (CP//Ryan Remiorz)

Brian Burke is an unrepentant loudmouth, which is part of his appeal.

Not many say what they think when they’re asked what they think, but Burke does, and it’s made him a hockey icon, the epitome of the tough-talking, back-alley truth teller that we’d like to believe makes hockey a more honest game than most.

Say it. Back it up. Fight about it if necessary. It’s the way of the puck.

The downside for Burke has been that so many of his quotable quotes — and really, there are hundreds — are so quotable that they come back to haunt him.

Remember his plan for the Toronto Maple Leafs when he was hired to be the Pope in the Vatican of hockey?

“We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence,” he said, and then went on to ice a team that was none of those things.

Then there was the “championship is the goal. Not to get in the eighth spot and get your ass kicked” — which was fun to trot out after the Leafs missed the 2012 playoffs and the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup.

There are more where those came from — Calgary, get ready.

But my favourite Burke line has always been this one:

“Pioneers are often misunderstood and mistrusted. But since he wishes to blaze this trail, I stand beside him with an axe!”

That was how he described his commitment to his gay son Brendan’s determination to come out publicly in 2009 and work to make hockey and all sports free of homophobia.

That line is worth remembering as Burke has once again decided to make his thoughts known, clearly and loudly.

With Russia’s determined anti-gay stance figuring prominently throughout the buildup to the Olympic Games in Sochi, Burke has decided to drop the gloves, so to speak, when it comes to how he plans to bridge his role as a father, an outspoken advocate for gay rights and his role as the director of player personnel with the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team.

In a column in Sports Illustrated titled “To Russia With Love,” Burke became the most prominent figure headed for Sochi to make clear that he won’t be keeping his views to himself:

Three years ago we lost Brendan, tragically, in an accident at 21, and since then our family has fought hard to carry on his message of love and inclusivity. We have marched in pride parades, spoken at events and donated time and energy in support of young LGBT people.

All these activities are now illegal in Sochi, the city that will host the Winter Olympics, where I will be with the U.S. hockey team. Russia has criminalized my ability to be a father and our ability to be a family.

You don’t have to be gay to care about this. You don’t have to have a gay son or daughter to recognize an organized effort by a government to target and destroy a minority group. History has taught us that, left unchecked, this sort of bigotry will only escalate. The rest of the world cannot bear silent witness.

He goes on to encourage athletes to speak up:

“So, Olympians, when you pack your skates, pack a rainbow pin. When you practice your Russian, learn how to say, ‘I am pro-gay.'”

Purely from an entertainment point of view the spectre of Burke giving Russian president Vladimir Putin the finger is enough to make a USA gold medal in hockey a worthy substitute should Canada not be able to pull it off.

But Burke’s is not an idle stance.

Because Russia has been so strident in their anti-gay views leading up to Sochi and since the International Olympic Committee hasn’t exactly been on the side of right in their response, with outgoing IOC president Jacques Rogge basically throwing up his hands — “we are restricted in our power and our action by the fact that we are the guest of a sovereign country where we hold the Games,” he said the other day — there’s been a growing curiosity around the possibility of an athlete or group of athletes becoming the symbol for gay rights during the Games.

No one knows what price would be paid for challenging Russia’s anti-gay laws in Russia.

In 1968, Tommy Smith and John Carlos eventually became icons when they raised their black-gloved fists in Mexico to recognize the civil rights struggle going on in the United States at the time, but at the time they were punished and removed from the Games by the IOC and faced their share of heat at home.

The stakes could be higher in Sochi given Russia’s seeming determination to ramp up anti-gay rhetoric and the support for those views domestically. In that context, Burke speaking his mind was welcomed.

“For him to step up and essentially volunteer to help carry the flag, I mean, this is what good allies do,” said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of OutSports. “Obviously having someone of his stature say this and take the steps to make sure this is a conversation around the Olympics and the discussion doesn’t get glossed over by shiny medals? … ‘Powerful’ is the word.”

Brian Burke, as is his nature, has spoken his mind. Now let’s hope that he can figure out a way to get that axe through customs.

He might need it.

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