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You Can Play: Behind Patrick Burke’s bold effort using NHL players to fight homophobia in hockey

Patrick Burke calls it "casual homophobia" in hockey.

It's the jocular language used in the locker room and on the ice that's intended to be humorous among teammates or insulting to opponents, but are essentially gay slurs for comedic effect. It's the kind of language that's helped keep gay players in the NHL and other levels of professional hockey from being candid about their sexuality, feeling the environment isn't a friendly or safe one.

"Those guys are using homophobic slurs but not meaning them in a homophobic sense. You see a guy say 'don't be gay' and he's not saying 'don't be a homosexual,' he's saying 'don't be an ass,'" said Burke, the son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke and a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers.

"We're all about makin' fun of each other. I understand how guys bond. But we need to cut out that language so those athletes that are hiding can feel safe."

You Can Play is Burke's bold new initiative that enlists NHL players — the count is up to around 30 as the campaign kicked off Sunday — to "change the sometimes homophobic culture of locker rooms with a message that athletes should be judged on athletic skill and ability, not sexual orientation or other discriminatory factors," according to the organization.

"Through You Can Play, we want to let guys know why that [casual homophobia] is hard for gay athletes to hear. Even if you don't mean it in that sense, there's probably a guy in the locker room that can't take it in any way but in that sense," said Burke.

The first PSA in for You Can Play will air during Sunday's New York Rangers vs. Boston Bruins game on NBC:

It features the following players: Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets; Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks; Brian Boyle of the New York Rangers; Matt Moulson of the New York Islanders; Joffrey Lupul of the Toronto Maple Leafs; Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers; Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators; Scott Hartnell of the Philadelphia Flyers; Corey Perry  of the Anaheim Ducks; Andy Greene of the New Jersey Devils; Dion Phaneuf of the Toronto Maple Leafs; and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers.

It also features Brian and Patrick Burke, carrying on the legacy and preaching the message inspired by the late Brendan Burke, who came out in November 2009 and immediately changed the perceptions for gays in hockey for millions of fans and athletes.

Patrick Burke hopes You Can Play can help achieve his late brother's dreams for the sport in every level: That it becomes a place of acceptance, support and safety for gay athletes, to the point that one day an openly gay player can compete for a National Hockey League team without incident and feeling secure about it.

Because as long as they can play, they can play.

THE BEGINNING

Brendan Burke came out publicly in November 2009, two years after he told his father Brian Burke he was gay. The admission sparked a widespread conversation about LGBT issues in sports and turned Brian Burke — the gruff, no-nonsense promoter of "truculent" hockey — into the leading voice for acceptance in the NHL.

In February 2010, Brendan Burke died suddenly and tragically in a car accident in Indiana. Patrick Burke penned a heartfelt tribute to his late brother on Outsports, a leading website for gays in sports. At one point, Patrick Burke wrote the following phrase about his brother's legacy, and it stuck with him: "If you can play, you can play."

"I liked the way it sounded. It was a simple expression that players could use and that fans could use to let people know that the sports world is more welcoming than people think," said Burke.

Over the next year, Patrick Burke began working with GForce, a hockey team comprised of LGBT athletes that travels the country and presents Sports Invisible Athlete Forums, which allow gay athletes to discuss their plight in a safe environment. Burke appreciated their work ethic and commitment, and offered an idea: What about enlisting NHL players to help further the cause through a public campaign?

You Can Play was born.

Glenn Witman, a co-founder of You Can Play, is a former hockey player at Hobart College and founder of GForce Sports. "Any player, gay or straight, knows how homophobic locker rooms can be," Witman said.  "Coaches and teams don't get the best performance when a member of the team is forced to keep any secret, or when any player feels shut out.  You Can Play shows coaches, team captains and players how important it is to focus on skills and work ethic, not personal differences."

The campaign echoes the "It Gets Better" anti-bullying effort, not only in its execution — the hope is that players from around the world create their own "You Can Play" videos in a viral movement — but in the enlistment of famous faces to help sell the effort.

Last November, Burke took the idea to all 30 NHL general managers — tampering rules prevented him from going directly to the players. Plus, as Burke said: "We also didn't want GMs to have this sprung on them, as all of a sudden one of their star players is in a campaign for gay rights."

There was hope that the players would get involved, partially because of Sean Avery's efforts last year in the fight for marriage equality. The backlash against him was minimal. "I think Sean's done really great things off the ice with LGBT issues. If Sean's good at one thing, it's attracting interest in things," said Burke, who plans to get him involved with the project.

You Can Play began putting together a mission statement and impressive collection of board members.

The GMs pitched the players, and nearly three dozen of them are already involved in the campaign, spanning generations and nationalities and positions on the roster.

"I'm comfortable with saying that if you put together the 30 guys that we got, we could win a Stanley Cup pretty easy," said Patrick Burke.

"We also have two of the toughest heavyweights in the National Hockey League, too. We know how to build a team in the Burke image. We're not going to be civil about this."

THEY CAN PLAY

In the NHL, the common objective is winning. Any number of personal grudges, politics and beliefs are put on hold from October through June each season in order to achieve that objective.

To that end, You Can Play is a reminder to gay athletes that no matter how hostile the environment might seem, the hockey locker room is more accepting than they might imagine.

"All our guys care about is winning," said Patrick Burke. "So you can go to them and say, 'Hey, we have this really great linemate for you, he's going to play his ass off, he's gonna hit and block shots and help you guys win. But he's gay.' And they're going to say, 'I like guys that can hit and block shots and help us win, and I don't give a [crap] about the rest of it."

You Can Play: Behind Patrick Burke’s bold effort using NHL players to fight homophobia in hockeyAs Brian Burke said recently: "It has become abundantly clear to me that NHL players, coaches, and management agree completely with our ideals: talent matters, sexual orientation does not. If you can play, You Can Play."

Still, Patrick Burke isn't naïve. He knows there are players in the NHL that object to the LGBT rights movement out of religious concerns or personal beliefs.

What he believes, however, is that those feelings are separate from seeing a gay teammate as just another guy in the room.

"If there are athletes that are opposed to gay marriage because of their personal beliefs, but still would support a gay teammate because they believe they should treat all of their teammates with dignity, they can participate in You Can Play knowing that our message will only ever be that LGBT teammates should be safe in the locker room," said Burke, who called You Can Play "apolitical, a-religious … just about sports."

ENDING THE TAUNTS

In September 2011, Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers allegedly used a gay slur against Sean Avery of the New York Rangers during a preseason game. Cameras picked up Simmonds mouthing the word; the NHL felt there wasn't ample evidence to punish Simmonds for it.

The response to that inaction was overwhelming, as fans and media were outraged about double-standards — had this been a racial epithet, there would have been a suspension, went the thinking. (Krys Barch's suspension later in the season only fueled that notion.)

Behind the scenes, the NHL had stepped up its policing of gay slurs, said Patrick Burke.

"The NHL, in the wake of the Wayne Simmonds incident, sent a very strong statement from Colin Campbell stating that, going forward, homophobic slurs would be treated the same way as racial slurs. They had a general policy, but now our guys are aware of that."

You Can Play is as much about acceptance of gay players in hockey as it is about curbing this type of behavior, be it "casual homophobia" or intentional ugliness. But Burke said the organization isn't asking for any sort of draconian rules that heavily penalize this language, nor is it asking the players to sign a pledge of any kind not to use it.

"I'm not a big believer in rules. We're trying to educate these players. The NHL has their own rules for homophobic slurs, which I fully support. Our athletes that are participating don't have to sign anything. We're just asking them to think about it," he said.

And also asking them to think about how it plays with younger athletes who look up to them.

"Professional athletes are role models. Anyone that's gone to a youth hockey game and seen guys copying celebrations knows that," said Burke.

"On the other hand, the generations coming up are much more accepting and more comfortable with LGBT issues and people. So there will be some trickle-up."

THE NHL'S COMING OUT PARTY

Patrick Burke believes that based on initiatives like this, and the acceptance of LGBT rights by younger generations, we're about one year away from having a player come out in the National Hockey League.

According to Burke, it'll happen in one of three ways: A young gay player is out from the start of his career and moves up the ranks to the NHL; a retired player sets the tone by coming out, like John Amaechi in the NBA; or a current NHL player comes out, shattering that barrier for the "big four" sports in the U.S.

"A large portion of what we want to do in this campaign is allow players of all levels to feel safe coming out. This is as much for the NHL athletes as it is for the high school kids," said Burke.

He believes that the more unburdened NHL players can become, the better it is for the league.

"It's gonna make for a better league. Every year there's something going on off the ice, and his game goes right down the gutter," he said.

It's something Brendan Burke hoped to see one day happen. But more than that, his dream was to see a hockey culture where it could happen: "There are a lot of gay athletes out there and gay people working in pro sports that deserve to know that there are safe environments where people are supportive of you regardless of your sexual orientation," said Brendan Burke in 2009.

In other words: If they can play, They Can Play.

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