September 17, 2013

From NEHJ: You Can Play enters new phase

By Jesse Connolly

You Can Play co-founder Patrick Burke with his late brother, Brendan, at Fenway Park. Below, Patrick Burke with Blades, the Bruins mascot.

At some point in our lives, all of us have been inspired to go out and change the world. As co-founder of You Can Play, a project launched in the spring of 2012 that’s dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes without regard to sexual orientation, Patrick Burke has done just that, and on a scale much larger than he likely anticipated.

A Canton, Mass., native and the son of former Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke (Providence, R.I.), Patrick’s inspiration came in the wake of tragedy, as his brother Brendan — the video coordinator and student manager for Miami-Ohio’s hockey team — was killed in a car crash in 2010. The 21-year-old’s death came just months after he came out to his family and subsequently the world in a story by ESPN’s John Buccigross, putting him in the national spotlight as an advocate for gay rights.

Now, after a year and a half as the face of an organization that’s made huge strides toward stomping out homophobia in sports, Patrick is stepping back behind the curtain. In August, the former Philadelphia Flyers scout announced that ex-NFL player Wade Davis — who came out after retiring — would be taking over as executive director of You Can Play.

“I think, for too long, we’ve had a straight voice kind of dominating the conversation,” Burke said. “I think that there’s something to be said for empowering a gay, black, former NFL player who can connect with people in ways that I can’t.”

Burke left the Flyers in August to join NHL Department of Player Safety mentor Brendan Shanahan in the newly created position of director of player safety.

We caught up with Patrick — who will remain heavily involved behind the scenes — to discuss all that You Can Play has accomplished thus far, and got his take on the controversy surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, as many fear Russia’s new anti-gay laws may put LGBT athletes and those who support them in danger.

NEHJ: It’s March 4, 2012, and You Can Play is introduced to the world. What was that day like for you?

Burke: It was certainly a nerve-wracking day for all of us. I was in New York and spent the morning doing media, then went to the Bruins-Rangers game where it debuted. At that point we had the support of the league, the teams, and numerous players. It was all about gauging how the fans would respond to it. Thankfully there was an overwhelmingly positive response.

NEHJ: No one aims low on their ultimate goals, but has all that YCP has achieved in its first year and a half exceeded your expectations in any way?

Burke: I think it definitely did in terms of how quickly it became a real part of the conversation in the NHL. We anticipated a good response, and anticipated that people would like us, but I don’t think we knew how quickly we would be seen as an integral part of the game. Players know us and reference us, fans talk about us, management calls on us. We were almost immediately a part of the hockey culture.

NEHJ: How much of a game-changer is the official partnership with the NHL and NHLPA?

Burke: It’s huge. First of all, to have an official position from both the NHL and the NHLPA that gay players and fans are welcome is amazing. The ability to provide resources and information directly to players is ground-breaking in how aggressively smart it is.

NEHJ: Does YCP have a hands-on role with the process of educating prospects?

Burke: Yes, we will be involved with educating prospects and currently players through resources and through the rookie symposium.

NEHJ: You’re always around the game. How much of an effect has YCP had on “hockey people” — from players to scouts, trainers, all the way up the ranks — whether behaviorally or conversationally?

Burke: I think it’s really helped change the tone of conversation. There was a decent amount of casual homophobia that we’d have to hear over the years, and that’s definitely slowed to almost nothing. The last time a scout said something homophobic in front of me, he called me a day later to personally apologize and swore he’d never do something like that again. Guys are starting to recognize that it’s not OK, and even correct other guys for their missteps.

NEHJ: You’ve publicly stated you’re opposed to any consideration of boycotting the Sochi Olympics. Does that feel contradictory, in any way, to what you and YCP stand for? Was it a stance you wrestled with at all?

Burke: No. We think our mission is fully served by participating in the Olympics and drawing as much attention as possible to the horrific crimes going on in Russia right now. Every LGBT sports figure we’ve spoken to agrees. And the Russian LGBT community wants the Olympics to continue. Not to mention the fact that a boycott was never considered as a possible option by any Olympic governing body or the U.S. government. So, no. We didn’t wrestle with it, because the boycott idea is a failure on every level.

NEHJ: With so many high-profile, pro-LGBT NHLers and staff members — your dad included — representing the U.S. and Canada in Sochi, is it possible to rule out concerns of someone being made an example of by the Russian government?

Burke: No. We cannot and have not ruled out those concerns.

NEHJ: What about the fear of Russian citizens taking the law into their own hands?

Burke: That is more of a concern to us than the government acting, but both are possibilities. We consider both possibilities to be remote, but it is a non-zero threat.

NEHJ: Has You Can Play discussed any reactionary strategies if something like this were to happen?

Burke: We would respond appropriately to whatever situation arose.

NEHJ: Is knowing how proud Brendan would be of all the strides you, your dad, YCP and, heck, the sports world as a whole have made over these last few years something that crosses your mind on a daily basis?

Burke: I hope that Brendan would have been proud of us. I genuinely believe that he would be, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think an hour goes by on any given day where I don’t think about him and miss him terribly. You Can Play has been an outlet for my grief, but nothing takes that feeling of loss away. I try to remember that this is something Brendan would have loved to see when he was 16, and that we are helping the next generation of gay athletes feel safer. I wish someone had done something like this when Brendan was in high school.

To learn more about You Can Play, go to www.youcanplayproject.org.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ

jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com