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Hockey closer to having first openly gay player

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For less than a year, Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke, son of Leafs GM Brian Burke and brother of the late Brendan Burke, has been working with professional hockey players on the You Can Play Project, founded in Brendan’s memory and tasked to ensure equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. Yet he’s already convinced the hockey world will have its first openly gay professional player in the very near future.

“Within the next two years, I predict we’ll have an openly gay National Hockey League player,” Patrick Burke said. “That is my personal belief and numerous people, including people within the charity, disagree with me completely. It’s my opinion only, but I think I’m right.

“I think our athletes have made it clear they support their teammates. I think management has made it clear through their support of You Can Play. I think fans have made it clear. I think the commissioner has made it clear. I think the league office has made it clear. Everyone knows now the NHL is on board. I believe players will take a little while and make sure we’re not going anywhere, that YCP and the Burke family are here to stay, and within the next couple years they’ll know that this is a league in which they can come out and still play.”

San Jose Sharks center Tommy Wingels and Phoenix Coyotes minor-leaguer Andy Miele were the first two professional players to throw their support behind the YCP project, created in the wake of Brendan Burke’s tragic death in February of 2010 and meant as a celebration of his bravery in revealing he was gay and campaigning for increased tolerance in the hockey world. However, virtually all corners of the NHL have endorsed Patrick Burke’s vision of a game open to anyone who loves it enough to play; stars such as Claude Giroux, Zdeno Chara, Rick Nash, Matt Moulson, Joffrey Lupul, Duncan Keith and Jason Pominville all have lent their voice to the YCP brand.

It is, Patrick Burke said, a huge tribute to Brendan’s memory and the men who excel at the sport he loved.

“In one sense, it’s almost what I expected, because I know how great the hockey community is,” Patrick Burke said. “So I really believed we’d be supported. But to say I expected this level of support and this amount of players to go above and beyond and reach out to us, no, I never could’ve predicted this.”

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Some might still argue that someone’s sexual orientation shouldn’t be up for public discussion. But Patrick Burke realizes the value of speaking out is ensuring athletes remain in the sport when, in an era before this, they might have faced homophobic slurs and been driven away from the game.

“People say we don’t need to talk about this or bring light to the issue – basically, ‘who cares?’ And in a sense, we agree. We don’t care. Our policy is, if a player on the Flyers came out tomorrow and I could improve our team by cutting him, I’d cut him immediately. So we don’t care in that regard. But when you look at the culture that exists, it needs changing.”

Ultimately, Burke said, the game will be better served when people understand there is no single person, player or attitude that defines the sport. If you love hockey, the You Can Play project, Patrick Burke and his family intend on making damn certain the game loves you back.

“There’s a sense there’s a right way to be a hockey player," Burke said. "Historically that has had an effect on Europeans and even now the hockey world is debating whether you should take a Russian player first overall. The idea is there’s a right way to be a hockey player and that’s definitely not true.”

Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His Power Rankings appear Mondays, his column appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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