Brian Burke says he "simply could not be more proud of Brendan." (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
How do you cover off something that seems so clear-cut? It would be impossible for your friends here at The Hockey News not to weigh in on the revelation that Miami University student manager Brendan Burke – son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, brother of Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke – had announced to his RedHawks hockey team that he was gay.
ESPN’s John Buccigross broke the story and everyone else followed. Brendan quit playing goalie in high school because he didn’t feel comfortable in a homophobic dressing room, but found his place at Miami, where coach Enrico Blasi encouraged a “brotherhood” that could not be broken. Burke told the RedHawks and they were cool with it.
Yay everyone? Well, yeah, duh.
Hockey culture may be a little slow on the progressive front, but I tend to think a lot of it is posturing. At the pro level, dudes just love to play hockey and over the years have accepted playing with guys from other countries, races, religions and even rival college programs. The 1970s Flyers may have castigated Borje Salming as a “chicken Swede,” but the 1990s Flyers soared thanks in part to Mikael Renberg. Skill trumps all – eventually.
So while high school may have been hell for Brendan Burke, the next generation will crack that final barrier. Unfortunately for Brendan, he learned people are at their worst when they’re in high school – it’s the crucible of being young enough to desperately want to fit in and smart enough to know how to really hurt someone else in that pursuit (but not smart enough to realize how horrible you’re being).
In a recent New York Times magazine feature, the issue of kids in middle school and early high school coming out of the closet was explored. To me, it was fascinating.
Coming out in middle school? That’s crazy! I grew up in a multicultural suburb close to Canada’s biggest city and we had one guy in our high school who came out – and he got no sympathy from the school administration when he complained about being hassled. That was 15 years ago.
In hockey terms, it will be very soon when openly gay students begin to try out for and make high school teams. Their buddies will have known and become accustomed to that fact and it will be no big deal. If openly gay players are good enough, they’ll move on to major junior, college, the American League and the NHL.
OK, so there will be some holdouts. Hockey players come from all walks of life and some are still scared of, or religiously opposed to, homosexuality.
But the real onus will be on the veterans at each level. They’re the ones who set the tone in the dressing room and can make life hell on rookies should they so choose. Straight rookies are going to follow their lead and the idea of speaking out against a homophobic captain or alternate captain probably isn’t going to happen just yet.
It won’t be an easy road for gay hockey players; they’ll have to be quick-witted and willing to stand up for themselves. As former player and current THN Insider Blogger Justin Bourne pointed out, part of playing sports is giving guys the gears about various things – buck teeth, hairiness, baldness – and acceptance will likely come through deflecting jabs about showering together or reading fashion magazines (maybe Sean Avery can advise on that second one).
I’m assuming gay hockey players would prefer to be known simply as “hockey players” and being one of the boys is part of that. Acceptance is coming and I think the next generation of boys already sees it.
If they haven’t, they will soon.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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