Sat Feb 05 12:24pm EST
Members of the Miami (Ohio) college hockey team leave a memorial service for Brendan Burke, son of Brian Burke, president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2010, in Canton, Mass. They're wearing patches in honor. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Were it not for Brendan Burke, the Stanley Cup would have never marched through a gay pride parade.
Last June, Andrew Sobotka, president of the Chicago Gay Hockey Association, wanted to continue the Chicago Blackhawks' championship celebration, which cut through different cultures and demographics in the Windy City, by having the Stanley Cup appear at the annual Pride Parade.
After some uncertain moments before the event, former Blackhawks defenseman Brent Sopel(notes) marched with the Cup in the parade, citing the powerful support shown by the Burke family to Brendan when he publicly came out in a Nov. 2009 ESPN column.
"When Brendan came out, Brian stood by him, and his whole family stood by him, like every family should," said Sopel. "We teach our kids about accepting everybody. Tolerate everybody, to understand where everyone is coming from."
Brendan Burke died one year ago today in an automobile accident in Indiana. The 21-year-old son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, Brendan's story as an openly gay athlete and student manager at Miami University inspired a dialogue about sexual tolerance in hockey culture that continues today.
His legacy is especially important to the openly gay athletes who play hockey, who see Burke's contribution to their cause as a landmark moment.
"He sparked the debate about gays in hockey," Sobotka said. "Everything that's happening now is people carrying his torch."
The Chicago Gay Hockey Association was founded in 2002. Sobotka, whose father Al is the octopus-twirling ice technician for the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena, said membership has doubled since the Cup made its parade appearance.
"In Chicago, we've seen growth, but I think it's played out across the country as well. There's even a new gay hockey association that's started in Utah," he said. "In the whole year since Brendan's death, gay hockey has really come into its own. From here on out, it'll just continue to grow."
For Sobotka, the reason Brendan Burke's story resonated with so many was because it was as much about a family's journey to tolerance as it was one individual's coming out story.
As that remarkable GQ article on Brian Burke noted, part of the mourning process for the Leafs GM was to take up the gay rights cause Brendan left behind.
"It's something we really hadn't seen before with athletes: That he had the full support of his family. They were willing to go to bat for him, and it was humbling to see," Sobotka said.
In Brian Burke's case, his was a prominent (and until that moment, unlikely) voice in the NHL coming to the defense of gay athletes whose sexual identity could leave them ostracized by players, coaches and management who disagree with it. Sobotka recalls hearing players like Chris Chelios(notes) and Henrik Zetterberg(notes) preach tolerance in the recent past as well.
"If there's a kid in Canada or wherever, who is playing and really loves the game and wants to keep playing but he's worried about coming out, I'd tell him to pick up the phone and call [NHLPA executive director] Donald Fehr and tell him to book me a [plane] ticket," he told the Toronto Sun. "I'll stand beside him in the dressing room while he tells his teammates he is gay. Maybe if Sean Avery is there, they would have less of a problem with it."
This is where Brendan Burke's legacy has also made an impact: It was as much a teachable moment for straight athletes as it was an inspirational one for gay players.
"I think it helped not only gay players, but it helped straight players as well. He put it out there for discussion, and I think in today's society that's what needed to happen. It needs to be talked about and discussed in organizations with management, and players and coaches," Sobotka said.
"He put it out there, and to see the response it's gotten at every level has been great. It's come a long way in the last year."
So far, in fact, that there's realistic talk about "when," rather than "if," an NHL or other professional hockey player will come out.
"With time, it'll happen. It's not something that'll happen overnight. It's such a vast change," said Sobotka. "The player has to feel comfortable with this teammates, and they have to be comfortable with him. He has to feel comfortable with his coach. And management has to support him."
What's most likely to happen: A player talks frankly about his sexuality and his experiences as a gay player after his career is over, much like John Amaechi in the NBA and Esera Tuaolo in the NFL.
"That would be an expected first step for hockey players," said Sobotka.
But in 2011, it's still a time to lay the foundation for tolerance. Like having Brendan's brother Patrick, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, advocating the end of "gay slurs" shouted between players and from the stands. From Outsports:
It will take men of courage, gay and straight, to break this cycle. The hockey establishment must do a better job of establishing a safe haven for gay athletes. We need to work on ending the use of homophobic slurs as an insult (most recently seen in the embarrassing pictures taken of Chicago Blackhawk Pat Kane and a "Pronger is Gay" slogan; Kane just a few months ago wore a dogtag reading "In Honor of Brendan Burke" with the rest of his Olympic hockey teammates). We need to ensure that locker rooms are a place for bonding, not division. For far too many people, coming out means choosing between things that they love: sports, jobs, friends, family members, and in some awful cases, safety. The hockey world needs to make it clear that gay athletes do not need to choose between living their lives honestly and playing the game that they love.
"It can be hurtful," said Sobotka of the language. "Especially with all of the issues with bullying. It has more of an effect on people than is realized. Even using the phrase, 'That's gay.'"
From culture to words, what Sobotka and so many other openly gay hockey players hope is that the late Brendan Burke has helped change that conversation.