Grange on NHL and You Can Play: Times are changing

Patrick Burke (left) and his father Brian Burke, seen here in a PSA for You Can Play.

When Patrick Burke decided to throw the considerable force of his personality behind making sports a welcoming place for gay athletes, he had in mind a prototypical high school freshman, a kid maybe like his brother Brendan was not that long ago.

The idea when he co-founded the You Can Play Project just over a year ago was that that a sports-loving kid in the ninth grade could come into his own as a person and athlete to the point that by the time they finished college eight years hence his world would be changed, and everyone else’s along with it.

Somewhere along that timeline he could come out to his coaches and teammates in high school without fear or intimidation

That he could, if he was inclined, be a student-athlete at college without pretending he was something he was not.

And were he one of the chosen ones – good enough to pursue his athletic passions professionally – his sexuality wouldn’t be a talking point for teams looking for help to win games; or a weakness to be attacked by fans or other teams.

In a perfect world the kid he could come to work without fear and he wouldn’t necessarily be alone or be the first professional athlete to be openly gay, and the path would only get easier for those kids that followed him, no matter what sport they played at what level.

That kid is in 10th grade now, and in just over 12 months his world is changing faster than even Burke imagined.

“My two co-founders and I signed up with eight-year plans, with the idea that a freshman in high school would graduate in from college in that time (big progress would have been made),” Burke said in a telephone interview Thursday. “And honestly we didn’t think eight years would be enough, but looking at where we are now and the progress we’ve made on this is the past year, eight years might be too much.”

On Thursday came the latest sign that the world is changing for that high school kid, for his teammates and for sports fans as You Can Play announced a formal partnership with the NHL and became the first LGBT advocacy group to create an agreement with a professional sports league to advance LGBT awareness and acceptance.

It builds on work that began a year ago when the You Can Play made its first splash with a series of public service announcements in which some of the NHL’s biggest stars repeated the organization’s simple mantra: “If you can play, you can play” – communicating the message that skill, heart and talent should determine how athletes are perceived by teammates, opponents, organizations and fans — not sexual orientation.

The initiative was inspired by Brendan Burke, the 21-year-old son of former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke who died in a car accident in February of 2010. The former high school goalie and student manager for the men’s hockey team at Miami (Ohio) University, he had just recently came out to the hockey community and was passionate about eradicating casual and not-so casual homophobia that has been ingrained in team sports.

After Brendan’s death, Patrick was determined to honour his legacy and YCP was born. The Burke family name helped make the NHL and NHLPA receptive to the message, but a formal arrangement such as the one announced Thursday took time.

“They wanted to be comfortable with us,” Patrick said.  “We were a new organization and while I know they trusted me and trusted the Burke family, it was a question of how were we going to handle things? Were we going to be aggressive? Political? How is it going to work?

“So after a doing a lot of unofficial work for both entities, around the one year mark we kind of said: we’ve proven ourselves, we’ve shown we can handle this and handle this well and thankfully the NHL and the NHLPA agreed and decided it was time to make it official.”

You Can Play will hold seminars at the NHL’s annual symposium for rookies to educate the league’s youngest players about the issues facing the LGBT community. The project will also be included in the NHL’s and NHLPA’s behavioural-health program, which will allow players to seek confidential counseling or get answers about anything involving sexual orientation. There will be more public service announcements and outreach programs and YCP will have a presence on the NHL’s web site.

It is all with the ultimate aim of becoming redundant.

“The biggest end goal is that a player coming out isn’t a story; it’s not a big deal. A player will come out and the reaction will be, oh, congratulations, you’re the 120th player to come out and play in the NHL,” Burke says. “Once we get to that point, where the locker room is clearly free of intimidation and harassment, we can’t wait to shut down.”

How close that moment may be at hand is impossible to gauge, but progress is clearly coming. There have been rumblings in recent weeks that as many as four NFL players are planning to come out at once, which will mark the first time a male athlete in any of the major team sports will have come out while still competing.

Burke says the other major sports leagues are in discussions with gay organizations on similar issues and You Can Play is often at the table and would like to play a like they have with the NHL with other leagues.  In the wake of the controversy at the end of last season when former Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar took the field with a gay slur written on his eye black in Spanish, YCP was invited to address the club’s players at Spring Training.

But there is still need, certainly. When coaches and players in heated competitive environments really want to belittle someone, gay slurs are still part of the menu, as the revolting display caught on video of former Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice proved in a controversy that ultimately cost him and his athletic director their jobs last week proved. One of the biggest stories coming out of the NFL draft combine was that at least one team was asking potential draftees about their sexual orientation, a violation of human rights legislation in many American states.

“Homophobic slurs are the only slurs that get excused by the ‘oh I didn’t mean it in that way’ thing,” Burke says. “If someone was sitting on the bench dropping the N-word on a black player it would be the end of the world.”

“Just call the guy an a–hole,” says Burke, who is also a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers. “I have no problem with that.”

Sensitivity takes time and practice. The vast majority of hockey players would tell you they would stand up for a gay friend if needed, Burke points outs, but a lot of those same athletes have used words or done things in the past 48 hours that would make a closeted gay player uncomfortable about coming out.

Burke says he’s asked all the time how many gay players there may or may not be playing in the NHL and if they might be coming out and when.

Burke’s short answer is he doesn’t know.

“It could be zero, it could be 200, I have no idea,” he says. “But while we’re waiting to find out, how about we make it a safe space just in case?”

Somewhere there’s a probably a pretty good hockey player in the 10th grade working hard to realize his dream of playing in the NHL.

Thanks to Burke and the NHL and its players, if that kid happens to be gay, he won’t have think twice about it when it’s time for him hit the ice in the best hockey league in the world.

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