Patrick Burke believes the fight against homophobia in sports has taken a huge step forward.
The NHL and National Hockey League Players' Association announced Thursday they are partnering with the You Can Play Project, an organization aimed at eliminating homophobia in athletics.
Burke founded the You Can Play Project in March 2012 in memory of his younger brother Brendan, who died in a car accident in 2010, three years after coming out to his family.
"This is something that is set in stone that can't be changed," said Burke, a scout with the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers and the son of former NHL general manager Brian Burke. "The NHL is inclusive. If you're a player, if you're a coach, if you're a media member, if you're management of if you're a fan it's now set in stone, signed and sealed by the lawyers that the NHL and the NHL players want to include you."
Other partnerships could soon follow, said Burke.
"I think what we're doing is setting the blueprint now," he said. "Other leagues are talking to different groups, including us, and trying to figure out the way that they want to go.
"I think this is a sign, a very clear sign that we're able to handle this."
Burke said the You Can Play Project has been working with the NHL and its players' union since shortly after the program's inception.
"Right around our one-year anniversary, at that point the league and NHLPA were comfortable enough with the work we had done that we all began speaking about making it official," Burke said. "But it really came together in the past week."
You Can Play will conduct seminars at the NHL's rookie symposium and make its resources and personnel available to each individual team as desired.
The NHL and NHLPA will work with You Can Play to integrate the project into their Behavioral Health Program to enable players to confidentially seek counselling or simply ask questions about sexual orientation issues.
"Our motto is 'Hockey Is For Everyone,' and our partnership with You Can Play certifies that position in a clear and unequivocal way," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "While we believe that our actions in the past have shown our support for the LGBT community, we are delighted to reaffirm through this joint venture with the NHL Players' Association that the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker-rooms and in the stands."
On board since the beginning
NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said the players have been on board with You Can Play since the beginning.
"The players believe our partnership with the NHL and You Can Play will foster an inclusive hockey environment from the grassroots level to the professional ranks," he said in a release.
Brian Burke as well as NHL players Tommy Wingels and Andy Miele serve on You Can Play's advisory board.
Currently, no athlete in North America's four major professional leagues — NHL, NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball — has publicly revealed he's gay. Last week, free-agent NFL linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo — a former CFL player who has been a vocal supporter of gay marriage — said he believed as many as four current NFL players were considering coming out.
He later backtracked, saying "potentially it's possible" the players could all come out at the same time.
Regardless, Patrick Burke said it's only a matter of time before a gay pro athlete steps forward. Burke believes when that happens, both professional sports and society will be ready to accept it.
"We're always going to have some meatheads," he said. "When the first player comes out there's going to be someone on Twitter who says something stupid and someone in the stands who yells something stupid.
"But I'm not worried about them. We've got the vast majority of NHL fans [who] have our back and we have theirs."
However, Burke said the You Can Play Project is not just for pro players.
"To me, it's just as important that a young player playing lacrosse or a 60-year-old playing beer league someplace feel safe in their locker-room," he said. "We really want to work on the culture at its core because I believe in any sport, at any level, at any age, at any skill level, you should be able to play sports free of fear."