Four years ago Brendan Burke, son of one of the toughest hockey managers in the National Hockey League (NHL), blazed a trail his dad never anticipated. He came out.
The younger Burke was at the time, in his own way, following in his famous father’s footsteps, having recently entered the world of hockey management at Miami University in Ohio. His coach and teammates would accept his revelation and take it in stride.
“I think having Brendan as part of our program has been a blessing,” coach Enrico Blasi told ESPN’s John Buccigross in Brendan’s 2009 coming-out story.
Brendan’s gruff-and-tumble father was equally supportive. So was his older brother Patrick.
“In so many ways, I look up to him for who he is and what he does,” Patrick Burke, now a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, told Buccigross.
“Obviously, there are gay players in hockey right now, just no openly gay ones. And there are gay people in management, whether they’re scouts or front-office people or coaches. We just don’t have any openly gay ones right now.
“I think it will be a challenge for the first person that comes out, because they’ll be putting themselves under a microscope,” Patrick continued. “The scary thing for me is that it might be Brendan, if he chooses to go into [professional] hockey. I don’t think it’s fair the face of homosexuality in hockey should be a 20-year-old college kid, but Brendan is more than willing to be the guy, which awes me. I think it’s a matter of when, not if, players and management start coming out.”
Before going into management, Brendan was a goalie, and presumably a good one since he made the competitive varsity team as a senior. But he chose not to play. At the time, he made up some excuse, but he later revealed to Buccigross that he hung up his skates because he couldn’t take the locker-room atmosphere anymore. Homophobic slurs were as common as hockey tape, he said, and the pressure to be straight was increasingly intense. So he quit and went into management. Then he came out.
Then he died.
The car crash in Indiana on a snowy night in 2010 plunged the sports world, and the Burke family, into shocked mourning.
“I can’t talk publicly about Brendan too much yet, but I’ll do the best I can,” Brian Burke tells Xtra, looking down.
He says his son’s decision to come out took a lot of courage.
“It’s not that I didn’t want him to come out publicly. I just wanted to keep him safe. The pioneer is usually a lonely guy. He walks alone. I just hoped Brendan would be second or third or fourth. Obviously, I told him I’d support whatever he decided to do.”
Before Brendan died, his father invited him to Toronto for Pride. Though they didn’t march in the parade, they watched together from the sidelines with thousands of other spectators.
Last year, Brian Burke marched in the Toronto Pride parade. Now he’s taking his tribute to his son a step further. On March 5, he and his son Patrick launched their You Can Play campaign.
“We’re now joined by hockey players around the world supporting my son Brendan’s simple message: ‘If you can play, you can play,’” Brian says in the campaign’s first ad.
Before Brendan died, he told Bucci-gross that he believed an NHL player would face a unique set of challenges but would generally be supported if he came out. He might face more verbal abuse from opposing fans, Brendan predicted, but the overwhelming sentiment would be, “If he can play hockey, who cares?”
Now Brian and Patrick Burke have assembled 39 NHL stars, and counting, to repeat that simple invitation and welcome gay players into one of the most macho environments on the continent.
“We are losing young athletes, some because we scare them off, some because they never get into sports in the first place because they assume that sports will never accept them,” Patrick tells Xtra.
“It’s rapidly improving, but not fast enough.”
“Over the years,” he notes, “straight athletes have been conditioned to think they should not support gay rights. We need to give them a means to support gay players. The vast majority of them do.”
Patrick predicts the NHL will see its first openly gay player in the next two years. “We have hit the tipping point here. We are getting closer and closer to that moment.”
Brian recalls a touching letter he recently received from a fellow hockey dad. In it the father described driving with his son, who suddenly asked him to pull the car over. The son took a deep breath and came out. “The father turned to his son and said, ‘If it’s good enough for Brian Burke, it’s good enough for me.’”
With files from Andrea Houston.