Brendan Burke’s legacy as a hockey pioneer

One year ago Saturday, Brendan Burke, the son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, died in a car accident on a snowy Indiana highway. He was 21.

Brendan, a student manager for the hockey team at Miami University in Ohio, died less than three months after becoming the closest person to the NHL ever to come out publicly and say that he is gay, starting a conversation about homophobia in pro sports his father has continued.

It has been a striking symbol to see big, burly Brian Burke, who uses words like “belligerence” and “truculence” when he talks about building his team, marching in the Pride Parade in Toronto, attending a Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays dinner in New York, meeting with former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue – whose son, Drew, is openly gay – in Washington to talk about how they can work together on the issue.

Brendan Burke (L) celebrated with his father, then-Ducks GM Brian Burke, after Anaheim won the Stanley Cup in 2007.

Brian Burke has declined interview requests concerning Brendan, a Leafs spokesman said. But his son Patrick, a Philadelphia Flyers scout, told the Ottawa Sun: “As a family, if a player comes out, we don’t want it to be for Brendan. We want him to do it for himself. The fact that Brendan was really the one who, in the hockey world, kicked off the discussion, that would be a very proud thing for us. The day Brendan’s goals are realized will be a very happy day for us.”

Mark Tewksbury, a gay Olympic swimming champion, told the newspaper he has counseled two gay men who are currently playing in the NHL – one who was prepared to come out but later changed his mind.

No openly gay athlete has competed in a major professional team sport in North America. Is one of the big leagues ready? Is the NHL ready in particular?

I don’t know. But I don’t know that baseball was ready for Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in 1947. I don’t know that if a league waits to be ready for change that change will ever occur. I don’t know that pioneering works like that.

I think the question is whether one man is ready – courageous enough to stand out from the crowd, yet talented enough to prove he belongs with the group – and whether the league and its fans would follow his lead.

“I think in some respect when people come out, they feel like there is a burden lifted off them, a weight lifted off their shoulders, like, ‘Hey, you know, I’m not hiding it anymore. I’m not trying to tip-toe around,’ ” Detroit Red Wings center Mike Modano(notes) said. “I think it would be a little bit of a relief in that sense.

“But you’re going into such a macho, tough mentality where guys might have a different opinion about that. … I think he would be really self-conscious.”

In a haunting, detailed story in GQ magazine, Brian Burke said that after Brendan had come out to him, “I thought, ‘I hope he has a happy life. I hope it’s not marked with persecution and bias and bigotry. I hope this burden isn’t too much for him.’ Especially if he was going to work in hockey.” He told his son to keep his head on a swivel.

Members of the Miami (Ohio) team leave a memorial service for Brendan Burke on Feb. 9, 2010, in Canton, Mass.
(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

“I think hockey’s a tough sport for somebody to do that,” Columbus Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger(notes) said. “It’s supposed to be a manly sport. That’s just the aura of it. I think it’s a shame, though, and I think hopefully someday people can live with themselves and be open about it.”

Ask around the NHL, and you’re going to have a hard time finding people who are against a gay athlete playing in the league. If someone feels that way, he probably isn’t going to tell a reporter. If someone has told gay jokes or used gay slurs – even mindlessly, without regard to the real meaning or weight of the words – he probably isn’t going to admit to that, either.

Some people decline to comment, not because they are intolerant, but because they aren’t comfortable speaking about the subject publicly.

But you’ll find others who have no problem saying they would have no problem with it. Politically correct? Yes. But also perhaps a first step.

Modano said he has good friends outside of hockey who are gay and he wouldn’t be uncomfortable with playing with someone who is gay.

“Ultimately,” Modano said, “he’s a teammate, and if that was his life, so be it.”

Said Umberger: “I know personally if I knew somebody on my team, I would support him.”

The NHL has a long history of intolerance. French speakers once were mocked by English speakers. Europeans once had to fight for acceptance and endure verbal and physical abuse. Swedes had to prove they weren’t soft. Russians had to show they cared about winning the Stanley Cup as much as Canadians did.

But this is the modern NHL now, a much more diverse mixture of cultures and skin colors. It’s a younger league filled with players who grew up in a different society with a different mindset.

Some of the old labels still linger, but they have faded to some extent. Players say they don’t hear gay slurs as much as they used to. The league doesn’t tolerate intolerance or even the appearance of it.

Defenseman James Wisniewski(notes), then of the New York Islanders, now of the Montreal Canadiens, directed a lewd gesture toward New York Rangers forward Sean Avery(notes) earlier this season. He received a two-game suspension and expressed regret afterward.

“I think it’s gotten to the point where it’s cleaned up a bit,” Modano said. “Some guys are known for that. But there are only about half-a-dozen in the league that are known for the pretty vocal side where they try to get under your skin in that sense.”

Atlanta Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley said when he builds his roster he doesn’t care about a player’s sexual orientation, just as he doesn’t care about his creed or country or color.

“As someone who has four black players on his team, I didn’t notice until someone pointed it out to me,” Dudley said. “I’d like to think we’re beyond stereotypes.”

I’d like to think that, too. But we won’t know until the NHL is tested by someone as tough as Brendan Burke.

Nicholas J. Cotsonika is a hockey writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Nicholas a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Feb 4, 2011