A big hockey weekend for Brian Burke became more important on a personal level for the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager on Sunday.
Burke, his son Patrick, 30 National Hockey League players and others supported the launch of the You Can Play project, an advocacy program to change what has, at times, been perceived as a homophobic culture in sports dressing rooms.
Burke appeared with Patrick, a Philadelphia Flyers scout, on a public service announcement during Sunday afternoon’s broadcast of the Boston Bruins-New York Rangers game on NBC Sports.
In November 2009, one of Burke’s other sons, Brendan, made headlines when he announced publicly that he was gay and talked about the challenges of playing sports growing up while coming to terms with being gay.
At the time, he was manager of the hockey team at Miami University in Ohio. Three months later, Brendan was killed in a car accident in Indiana.
"The Burke family is very proud to carry on Brendan’s legacy. … The You Can Play project will serve as a tremendous resource for the sports community by providing them with the tools needed to create safe arenas," said Brian Burke in a news release.
"I continue to be incredibly grateful to the NHL community for rallying around our cause and standing up for equality, and I look forward to seeing other leagues do the same.
"It has become abundantly clear to me," added Burke, "that NHL players, coaches, and management agree completely with our ideals: talent matters, sexual orientation does not. If you can play, You Can Play."
Homophobic slurs need to stop: Patrick Burke
Patrick Burke says homophobic jock talk in dressing rooms often isn't meant to be hurtful, but it still needs to be stopped.
"Those guys are using homophobic slurs but not meaning them in a homophobic sense," he's quoted as saying on Greg Wyshynski's Puck Daddy blog post Sunday. "You see a guy say 'don't be gay' and he's not saying 'don't be a homosexual,' he's saying 'don't be an ass.'
"We're all about makin' fun of each other. I understand how guys bond. But we need to cut out that language so those athletes that are hiding can feel safe."
You Can Play will extend beyond hockey, the news release stated, encompassing all sports, athletes and fans, and currently is in active talks with officials and players of other sports leagues.
Straight athletes need to 'step up'
On Friday night, Brian Burke sported his GM’s hat when he fired Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson and announced the next day that former Anaheim Ducks bench boss Randy Carlyle — with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 2007 — would take over.
But since Brendan’s death, Burke has been a participant in the annual Toronto Pride Parade to honour his son’s memory.
Like Burke, numerous NHL players will appear in upcoming public service announcements delivering a message that athletes should be judged on athletic skill and ability, not sexual orientation or other discriminatory factors.
"It’s important for straight athletes at all levels to step up and let gay athletes know they will be accepted, and to let other straight athletes know that homophobic language and attitude is never appropriate," Patrick Burke was quoted as saying in the news release out of Denver.
Glenn Witman is the third co-founder of You Can Play who played hockey at Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y. He also founded GForce Sports, an elite gay hockey team and advocacy program.
"Any player, gay or straight, knows how homophobic locker rooms can be," he said. "Coaches and teams don’t get the best performance when a member of the team is forced to keep any secret, or when any player feels shut out.
"You Can Play shows coaches, team captains and players how important it is to focus on skills and work ethic, not personal difference," said Witman, adding familiarity and understanding is the best way to promote acceptance.