The most difficult conversation of Patrick Burke's life did not come on the day his younger brother, Brendan, revealed he was gay. That was a relatively easy talk, at least for Patrick, now a scout for the Flyers. It was just after Christmas in 2007, and he was 24, five years older than Brendan. They were bringing in Patrick's luggage from the car after a scouting trip when Brendan told him, and for Patrick it didn't change a thing. Why would it? They were brothers. Just to make sure it wasn't one of Brendan's jokes, Patrick made him swear on the Stanley Cup that he was serious, the way the brothers often did, because hockey runs in the Burkes' blood. Brendan, then the student manager of the Miami (Ohio) men's hockey team, swore accordingly. "I love you," Patrick told his brother. Then he told him to grab a suitcase.
No, the hardest conversation of Patrick's life came a few days later, after he'd had time to think about the years that his brother had felt the need to keep his sexuality secret. He thought about the stereotypes he had joked about in front of Brendan and how he had casually used the word gay as an insult. They weren't hateful comments, just unthinking ones, but Patrick could hear them now the way Brendan must have heard them then. He would later learn why Brendan had quit his high school hockey team before his senior season: As a closeted gay player, he was uncomfortable with just that type of locker room banter.
"I had to sit down with my little brother, my best friend, and apologize," says Patrick. "I said, 'I'm sorry if I made your life harder. I'm sorry if I ever made you think that because you're gay, I would love you any less.'" It was Brendan's turn to reassure him. Whatever Patrick had said in the past hadn't changed the way Brendan felt about him. They were brothers. "He said, 'I knew you loved me,'" Patrick remembers. "But still I couldn't believe some of the things I had said."
You may know what came next, that after Brendan came out publicly in November 2009 and after his father, Maples Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke, not only accepted him but also accompanied him to Toronto's Gay Pride parade, fate bodychecked the Burke family into the boards. On Feb. 5, 2010, the SUV that Brendan was driving slid out of control on a snowy Indiana highway and into the path of an oncoming pickup truck, killing Brendan, 21, and Mark Reedy, 18. It was a tragedy deepened by its cruel timing—Brendan's life was over just as he was beginning to live it openly. The Burkes have dedicated themselves to gay activism in his memory ever since, and their latest project is the You Can Play initiative cofounded by Patrick.
The project's mission is to emphasize that sexual orientation should be irrelevant in sports, that quite simply, if you can play, you can play. More than 30 NHL players, including Zdeno Chara of the Bruins, the Blue Jackets' Rick Nash and Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers, have signed up to appear in public-service announcements—the first of which aired on March 4 during NBC's telecast of the Bruins-Rangers game—to drive that point home. "It's obvious that everyone should have the same rights and freedom to play the game," Lundqvist says. "Race or sexual orientation shouldn't matter. For all of us, when we were asked to help with this, it was easy to say yes."
More PSAs are planned, along with a guide for players, coaches, fans, administrators and media on how to create an environment that isn't hostile, even unintentionally, toward gay players. To date, no gay athletes have come out in any of the four major North American pro leagues. "We want to make locker rooms safe for all athletes, rather than places of fear, slurs and bullying," Patrick says. "The casual homophobia in sports has to change, so all athletes know that what counts is whether you can play the game."
As part of the project, Patrick has also spoken to dozens of high school and college hockey teams about tolerance and inclusion, and he thinks about how Brendan might have continued playing if a program like You Can Play had been in place then. Maybe he wouldn't have felt the need to keep part of himself a secret for as long as he did.
The project's website, youcanplayproject.org, features the PSA videos, as well as resources for LGBT athletes, including a phone number for suicide-prevention counseling and links for young athletes struggling with issues of sexuality. But Patrick is also targeting the sports community at large. He doesn't want others to someday be in the position he was in, feeling regret over the things they said or did that might have added to a gay athlete's fear or pain.
"I think [straight athletes] want this," Burke says of the response to his reaching out. "So many athletes are tired of the image of brain-dead jocks who are intolerant of homosexuality or other differences. A lot of them are eager to prove that [sports] is a more welcoming environment than people might expect."
It's not yet welcoming enough for gay athletes to be themselves without fear of being shunned or worse, but Burke believes the positive response from NHL players shows that the goal is within reach. He vows to keep working toward that end for as long as it takes. It's as if he made a promise to Brendan, as if he swore to it on the Cup.