It started as an earnest idea by a couple of pro hockey players with a personal connection to Brendan Burke, and was fully realized Sunday following the Providence Bruins 3-2 shootout loss to the Worcester Sharks.
Rather than sulking about plays not made in the just-completed game, members of the P-Bruins roster discussed something a little more important than wins and losses. They invited You Can Play project co-founder and president Patrick Burke to speak with the dressing room full of Providence players at the Dunkin Donuts Center. The intent: to pass on the important message thats become a paramount part of Patricks life since younger brother Brendan passed in a tragic motor vehicle accident two years ago.
Burke and his father, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, have made it part of their lifes work to break down the walls of homophobia in professional sports in memory of Brendan.
"I say 'Look guys, I dont need your time, I dont need your money, I dont need you to march in parades and I dont need you to be best friends with the gay community in Providence.' Although all of those things would be a great help if you wanted to do them," said Burke. "But all we need is for you to eliminate 5 or 10 words from your vocabulary and were 90 percent of the way to where I want to be.
"We try to emphasize to the guys that youre going to win more hockey games, youre going to be a better teammate and its not that hard."
The Burke message was nothing flashy or fancy. Its simply reality: Chances are these hockey players will have a gay teammate over the next decade if they havent already. There are easy ways for athletes to make sure they contribute to an environment in which gay teammates feel comfortable playing. So each player signs a pledge that theyre willing to "eliminate homophobic slurs from the locker room.''
The pledge gives the guys an easy way to know what theyre supporting, and it gives them something to live up to, said Burke. Its great to go and lecture guys on any issue, but now theyre putting their name behind it. Theyre signing their name behind it and putting their face on a video. We hope that will encourage them to back up their words with actions.
If you ask the Providence guys I was in and out of there in five minutes yesterday, and the message is simple: Homophobic slurs have an effect on gay players. We all want to be the type of teammates that show other teammates respect. These guys are in a great position where they can do a lot of good. All they need to do is eliminate five or 10 words from their vocabulary. If these guys play hockey for 10 years theyre going to have a gay teammate. Just going by mathematics, there are numerous closeted hockey players playing right now.
Burkes youngest son came out in 2009 while a student manager of the Miami University RedHawks mens hockey team, and was just scratching the surface of his impact upon the sporting world and gay community when his life was taken far too soon.
Bruins center Christian Hanson was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs when the car accident shook the Leafs franchise in 2010, and knows just important the cause is to the Burke family.
It was my rookie year in Toronto when Brendan passed, and it was tough for everybody. I cant even imagine what the Burke family was going through, said Hanson. Brian has played an instrumental part in my hockey career after signing me in Toronto, and Id known Brendan for years going to back to when I played at Notre Dame. When I heard about You Can Play this summer I called Patrick and told him Im willing to help in any way.
P-Bruins forward Carter Camper was a player on the Miami RedHawks teams during Burkes tenure as student manager, and counted Brendan as a good friend.
Brendan was basically a teammate. He was the team manager, but he would come out with us to games. He would eat with us on Sundays and he was always around the rink, said Camper. The best way I could describe him is that when he walked into a room everybody was happy, and everybody was listening to everything he had to say.
Hed come out to dinner with all of the families around, and my parents would always tell me what a nice kid they thought he was. He really made a difference even before he came out to us. He was just a special person.
So when players heard the Toronto Marlies had invited Patrick to speak to the team before agreeing to pledge removal of homophobic slurs from their dressing room, it made sense the P-Bruins stepped in as the second AHL team to endorse You Can Play.
Christian and I talked about it obviously, and with me being from Miami I was very familiar with the Burke family, said Camper. I think its a great cause and obviously were supporting it. Patrick talked about eliminating those homophobic slur words from our vocabulary. Im sure people dont use those words with hurtful intentions, but when Brendan passed away we made a conscious effort as a team to never use those words again.
Im proud to say Ive only said those words once or twice since he passed, and its a lot easier to eliminate them than you might think. A lot of people say theyre going to continue something when tragedy strikes like that, but I think Patrick has made it even bigger and more influential than even Brendan could have imagined.
Burke is pushing the You Can Play project while scouting for the Philadelphia Flyers and finishing up law school in Boston, so his never-ending energy level is something of a minor miracle. Its also an inspirational show of love in his brothers memory.
But the results already seen by You Can Play which has been widely adopted in the college hockey, AHL and NHL ranks among others is something that also invigorates him.
We had a lot of faith in the hockey community and we knew theyd get on board. But we didnt know to what extent. If you look at it now everything that I did yesterday was because of Christian Hanson and Carter Camper, said Burke. They asked me to come in. Andy Miele is running the same thing in Portland and doing a video. Mike McKenna, the goalie in Peoria, said the same thing I want to make a video with my team. What do we do?
"So were not even driving the bus anymore. The athletes are driving the bus and saying 'this is something thats important to us. This is something that is important to us. It has meaning and value to our locker room and teammates, and its something we want to take control of." "
Plans are in the works to develop similar outreach programs with the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball, and theres expected to be an imminent announcement of a partnership with the NCAA to educate college athletes on creating an open environment for everybody.
We have our second MLS video going up today. We could do individual stuff with all of the other sports tomorrow if we wanted to. But were looking for long-term lasting relationships with the other leagues like the one I have with the NHL and AHL, said Burke. We could do something with NFL and NBA players tomorrow, but we want to put something together thats bigger than a couple of videos.
Well keep doing videos and we have even more things coming beyond videos as we expand in the next few months. More than just raising awareness, were going to give people real, practical solutions on how we can fix this problem.
Just as Zdeno Chara was among the first NHL players to embrace the You Can Play concept when he filmed a commercial during last years All-Star weekend in Ottawa, its encouraging to see how forward-thinking the Bruins organization was by inviting Burke to Providence.
Now its up to the rest of the teams to follow the trail blazed by organizations like Toronto and Boston. The fact its happening at all means Brendan Burkes message is as strong and as powerful as its ever been.