Kolupanowich: ‘You Can Play’ redefining what it is to be a champion

By: Tim Kolupanowich, Executive Editor
@TimKolupan_

Patrick Burke keeps busy as a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, making decisions on who to draft and trade for in order to help the future of the team. But he also has another project he is working on that will help the future of the entire NHL.

Burke is the co-founder of the You Can Play Project, a cause dedicated to helping gay athletes gain respect and equal opportunities in all level of hockey. They are seeking to have players judged by skill, determination and teamwork alone without any reference to their sexual orientation.

The organization was started in memory of his brother Brendan who was praised after coming out and beginning the discussion of LGBT rights in sports. Brendan, who was the student manager of the Miami University men’s ice hockey team was killed in a car accident in February 2010, but legacy lives on through You Can Play. “Obviously his goal was to start the discussion of LGBT rights in hockey and in sports in general,” said Burke. While Brendan won’t be around to see the final outcome, he’s the one who got the ball rolling, setting in motion not only this cause, but also the beginning of the end of homophobia in sports.

You Can Play has produced many promotional videos featuring college athletes and prominent NHL stars, including Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber and Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos, calling for acceptance of gay athletes. Their slogan is “If you can play, you can play,” meaning players should be judged for their talent and effort alone. Here is one video featuring Patrick and Brian Burke and a host of NHL stars.

But these videos aren’t the only measures being taken in support of gay athletes.

Burke was in attendance as Nike hosted a LGBT Sports Summit last week that featured close to 30 groups supporting gay rights in sports. Groups such as the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and Athlete Ally came together to set goals in allowing gay athletes to feel safe playing the sports they love.

One of the biggest goals discussed at the summit was to change the definition of what it is to be a champion in sports. It’s more than just winning a league championship, it’s accepting every player on a team and treating everyone with respect. The idea is that “athletes who are champions, teams that win championships should be and must be LGBT friendly because that’s what a champion is,” said Burke. Winning at sports and, more importantly, winning at life means a lot more than coming out on top, it means allowing everyone who wants to be part of a team to be a part of a team.

What some may not realize is the actions and language in locker rooms is a big reason there has yet to be an openly gay hockey player. It’s commonplace for homophobic slurs to be tossed around and even though it’s most likely unintentional, this “casual homophobia,” as Burke put it, can be damaging.

“What we try and let people know is that for a gay athlete, that’s a tough, tough thing, that’s an intimidating, scary thing for them to have to sit there and listen to that and it weights on them and it effects the way they play,” said Burke.

And having players feel safe being who they are is perhaps the biggest goal of You Can Play; it’s right there in their mission statement. Burke wants to make sure “all players of all skill levels in all leagues feel comfortable coming out and that certainly includes the NHL.” When the day does arrive that the first openly gay player comes forward, which Burke has personally predicted will happen within the next two years, will be a huge success for You Can Play.

“Having an NHL where players feel safe coming out, where players feel safe being themselves would mean that we’re doing our job and that would be a big day for us,” he said. And as usual, what happens in the NHL trickles down to minor leagues, the university level and mite hockey, ensuring a steady wave of supporters from every level of the game.

Of course, after all the initial attention the first gay player receives dies down, it will be back to business as usual. Treating the first gay player any differently will set back everything You Can Play is trying to accomplish and Burke has no intention playing favorites just to make that player feel more welcome. “If a player on the Flyers came out and I could improve our team by cutting him tomorrow, then he’s cut. And if I could win with 25 gay guys then great, we’ll do it that way,” said Burke. “The end goal is that gay athletes aren’t treated any differently.”

But that doesn’t mean You Can Play won’t be there to provide support when needed. Should there ever be a problem with any teammates, coaches or media members, Burke’s program will back the player and help with the transition.

Reaction to the program has been largely positive as numerous NHL players have stepped forward and contacted You Can Play to record a promo, something Burke sees as the most important thing so far. “The fact that players are calling us is important, it shows that the culture has shifted,” said Burke. “We’re proud of where we’re at, there’s a long way to go, but there’s some good things happening in hockey.”

Somewhere, whether he is a draft candidate, prospect or already in the NHL, there’s a player who, whether he knows it now or not, will take the biggest step in ensuring safety and respect for gay hockey players everywhere. When that player comes forward, he and his teammates will accomplish something greater than any Stanley Cup victory by breaking down a barrier and allowing everyone to feel safe and have fun playing hockey. On that day, they will stand tall as true champions of sport.

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