This week marks two years since the tragic car-accident death of Brendan Burke, son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and a student video assistant for the Miami University (Ohio) hockey team.
Brendan also happened to be gay.
It wasn’t an easy environment for him. Canada is a country where hockey is the national religion, the Toronto Maple Leafs its holiest shrine. Team general managers, especially those running the center of the hockey world, are celebrities.
And the Canadian hockey world spins a certain way. Grit. Testosterone. Pugilism. The country is indelibly infused with “hockey culture,” a quite unexplainable mix of honor, toughness and manhood. Brian Burke, himself not a finessed goal scorer, was a career minor leaguer who kept himself relevant through toughness. When he built teams as a general manager, he described them as “truculent.” You knew when a Brian Burke team was on the ice: you’d feel the pain.
The homophobic atmosphere in many locker rooms is common knowledge. There is no room for a gay man there — certainly not in hockey, where machismo courses through the identity of the sport, and certainly not for the son of the ultimate hockey alpha-male.
Yet when Brendan Burke very publicly came out at age 19 in an ESPN article, he was roundly, if hesitantly, embraced. His hard-nosed father Brian, arguably the toughest and most influential man in hockey, stood at his side the whole way.
It was uncomfortable at times. The two received mixed reactions when they did a joint interview between periods of a nationally televised hockey game. Some TV commentators were visibly disquieted discussing it. Even James Duthie, an award-winning anchor on Canadian national sports network TSN, fumbled the word “gay,” which got stuck in his throat like it does every time one tries to come out of the closet.
But the issue remains. Gay men play professional sports. Gay men are in the NHL. And yet the most prominent openly gay figure in hockey is the son of a general manager. No active professional athlete from the four major American leagues has come out of the closet. And professional sports can hardly be considered a bastion of acceptance for gays and lesbians.
LeBron James has gone on the record saying that “if you’re gay and not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy.” Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell was suspended for slurs and lewd gestures at fans. Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 last spring for dropping a homophobic f-bomb on camera.
But what would or wouldn’t have happened if the TNT cameras didn’t happen to be pointing at Kobe? Aren’t these remarks tossed around all the time? They certainly haven’t been scarce in the high school locker rooms I’ve been in.
Surprisingly, it is the NHL, the most homogeneous sports league in America, a community steeped in inflexible and time-honored traditions, which is leading the charge against homophobia in sports. New York Rangers forward Sean Avery has partnered with the Human Rights Campaign to publicly advocate for same-sex marriage. The gruff, hard-nosed Brian Burke marched in two gay pride parades. And former Blackhawks defenseman Brent Sopel spent his one day with the Stanley Cup, viewed in Canada with a reverence befitting the Holy Grail, not in his hometown, but at the Chicago Gay Pride Parade.
As the hockey world turns, so too does the country that lives for it. Canada’s most revered sports figures, from Burke to outspoken (and famously conservative) commentator Don Cherry, have, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, denounced homophobia in sports.
In a country where gay marriage is politically uncontroversial, the last hurdle for acceptance remains in sports, which, in the Canadian psyche, is very little more than ice hockey.
And as hockey players began to realize they must change from their self-admitted homophobic culture, so has the country that looks up to their hockey stars like they do the real ones.
To think it all began with one brave story from a 19-year-old video assistant.
“Sports isn’t all homophobic…there are plenty of people in sports who accept people for who they are,” Brendan said, urging young gay athletes to keep hold of their dreams.
Wise words from an inspirational young man who was taken from us too soon.
Any other inspirational stories that deserve to be told? Email Edward at edngai “at” stanford “dot” edu.