Brian Burke has been an influence in the hockey community accepting gay rights. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
The timing could not have been more fortuitous. Just as I was talking to a teen player who had come out of the closet to his team and school, the Burke family’s You Can Play initiative hit the world full-stride, with a public service announcement featuring a cavalcade of NHLers.
From Zdeno Chara to Dion Phaneuf to Rick Nash, it’s impossible to minimize the names involved in the project, which takes its inspiration from the late Brendan Burke, son of Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke and brother of Flyers scout Patrick Burke. When Brendan announced to the Miami RedHawks team he worked for that he was gay, it began a revolution in hockey that is now unstoppable: Being openly gay and playing the sport at a high level will not be mutually exclusive for much longer.
Simply put, the momentum is too great. This isn’t like the foot-in-the-crease rule or bringing back the red line – intolerance towards homosexuals is finally seen as being on par with racism and players are beginning to acknowledge that.
Speaking with the teen player (his parents aren’t as keen on his name being out there), he told me how one of the first sentiments his teammates relayed to him was that they’d kick anyone’s ass that gave him a hard time. And really, if the jocks are on your side in high school, there’s not much left to fear other than acne and cafeteria food.
For further proof, just look at the immediate reaction to those who came out against Sean Avery when the Rangers (OK, Connecticut Whale) agitator voiced his support for gay marriage. Agent Todd Reynolds was treated like a pariah on the Internet and lost client Andrew Brunette (who signed with Don Baizley), while sportscaster Damian Goddard was fired by Sportsnet shortly after supporting Reynolds. These were swift backlashes – not a lot of hemming and hawing, which usually happens in hockey.
Will we see a current NHLer come out of the closet soon? I wouldn’t be surprised if the first big name to break the barrier is actually a college or major junior player who graduates to the bigs. Nothing against the current crop of NHLers, but the exposure of the current high school generation to positivity surrounding the gay community is light years ahead of what I experienced – and I’m not that old (we had one openly gay kid in high school and when he was harassed, a senior school official suggested the kid go to another school if he didn’t like it).
One perfect example is the character Omar Little from The Wire. ESPN’s LZ Granderson had a great piece on NFL and NBA stars who respected the openly gay stick-up artist, even if their previous views hadn’t been so liberal. Willem Dafoe’s badass FBI agent in The Boondock Saints inspired similar accolades from folks in my experience. Meanwhile, the Internet has created a space where no kid, no matter how small a town, is alone anymore.
Being a pioneer isn’t easy and with the money involved in sports these days, it’s not surprising no active Big Four athlete has come out yet – in their minds, I’m sure there are too many “what ifs?” And that’s fine – people have personal lives for a reason and we don’t need to know everything about our sports heroes if they’re not comfortable sharing. But there will be a trailblazer. The teen I talked to? I think he’s a hero and I’m sure he won’t be the last. There’s a long way to go before homophobia is stamped out, but the momentum is picking up fast in the hockey world.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.