Patrick Burke never envisioned himself as an advocate for gay rights, let alone being one of the most prominent promoters of inclusiveness in the ultra-macho mainstream male team-sports world.
Burke is, after all, straight; and he admitted that, while in his early 20s, life mostly consisted of watching hockey games, lots and lots of hockey games, and hanging out with friends.
"[Promoting gay rights] certainly is not where I thought I would be, not what I thought I would do with my life. My friends and family laugh about it a lot," said Burke, 30, who lives in Boston as the New England area scout for the Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey League (NHL).
"If you had told me when I was 16 that, I would be running a charity for LGBT rights, or I'd be an astronaut [when I got older], I would have said I'd be an astronaut 100 times out of 100."
Fate and family changed Burke's plan, his passion, and he now is truly doing astronaut-like out-of-this-world work to support gay athletes, especially professional athletes from any of the big four male team sports, particularly hockey, who may be contemplating coming-out.
Burke is the co-founder of the You Can Play Project, an advocacy organization that fights homophobia in sportsrooted in Burke's younger brother, Brendan, who came out as gay in 2009 and tragically passed away about a year later. The younger Burke was the team manager for the Miami (Ohio) University hockey team, one the best college hockey programs in the nation. The team accepted him then and still supports his legacy today.
Patrick and Brendan are the sons of Brian Burke, a longtime hockey executive who, most recently, was the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a job he held when Brendan came out.
"I think Brendan would be laughing hysterically at the fact that I'm [a gay-rights advocate], but also tremendously proudat least I hope he would," Burke said. "No one in my family ever thought that I'd be running a charity for anything, let alone [an organization that supports] gay rights. [Years ago,] you couldn't get me involved with politics or activism with a tow truck."
But Burke's You Can Play Project has been steam rolling since it was founded March 4, 2012.
The NHL and the National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) jointly announced in April an historic partnership with the You Can Play Project that formalizes and advances their long-standing commitment to make the NHL the most inclusive professional sports league in the world.
The partnership includes a commitment to education and training for teams, players, media and fans plus the production and broadcast of more public service announcements, the press release announcing the partnership said. The NHL becomes the first major American professional sports league to officially partner with an LGBT advocacy group on this scale.
The You Can Play Project will conduct seminars at the NHL's rookie symposium to educate young prospects on LGBT issues. In addition, You Can Play will make its resources and personnel available to each individual team as desired. The NHLPA and NHL also will work with You Can Play to integrate the project into their Behavioral Health Program, enabling players to confidentially seek counseling or simply ask questions regarding matters of sexual orientation.
"I think the most exciting thing [of the partnership] is, it now removes any doubt," Burke said. "If you're an LGBT athlete, coach, front-office official, or anything [within the NHL], any role in the game, whatever doubts you may have had about coming-out [while within the NHL,] now there is no doubt. It is signed, sealed and set in stone."
The three entities signed legal documents that are in perpetuity, Burke said.
"The official policy of the NHL is, inclusive, without a doubt," Burke said.
Burke said he was confident that the three-way agreement would be signed; he's just surprised how fast it happened.
"It's a tremendous tribute to the leadership of the NHL and the NHLPA. There was no hesitation, no negatives from the NHL or the NHLPA about [signing this,]" Burke said.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, in announcing the partnership, said: "Our motto is 'Hockey Is For Everyone,' and our partnership with You Can Play certifies that position in a clear and unequivocal way. While we believe that our actions in the past have shown our support for the LGBT community, we are delighted to reaffirm through this joint venture with the NHL Players' Association that the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands."
Don Fehr, the NHLPA executive director, added in a statement: "NHL players have supported the You Can Play Project since its inception, which we are pleased to formalize and expand upon with [the joint] announcement. The players believe our partnership with the NHL and You Can Play will foster an inclusive hockey environment from the grassroots level to the professional ranks."
Andrew Sobotka, the president of the Chicago Gay Hockey Association (CGHA), said the three-way agreement, "makes me extremely proud to be a hockey player."
"To know that the NHL is actively trying to change professional sports culture for the better is something that will have an impact on athletes of all levels," Sobotka said. "The CGHA would like to applaud the continued efforts of the You Can Play Project to promote LGBT inclusiveness in the hockey community. The partnership between the NHL, the NHLPA and You Can Play will make a lasting impact on athletics for all LGBT athletes. If any LGBT athlete had fears or reservations about coming-out, then those days will soon be over."
Jeff Kagan, the director of the New York Gay Hockey League, said he too was "excited" about the partnership and added that it was a "major step in the right direction."
"It lays the groundwork to create a safe environment for all athletes and, more importantly, the fans," Kagan said. "There are closeted gay athletes who play in the NHL. This will give them a path towards eventually coming-out, either to their teammates or to the general public. Knowing their workplace is accepting of their sexual-orientation will help to take that weight off of their shoulders; it may even help improve their performance as athletes."
Kagan, who is the co-director of ice hockey for Gay Games 9 scheduled for next August in Cleveland/Akron, added that the partnership carries a long-term, trick-down effect.
"Sure, this is wonderful for the professional hockey players. But the greater impact will be felt by the amateur players and fans who look up to the players and coaches as role models. There are good role models and bad role models, and in this case, the NHL is setting the new standard for how to conduct yourself. And not just on the ice, but off the ice as well."
Burke said the past four years or so, since his younger brother's coming-out, have been nothing short of "an interesting ride, something that truly has enriched my life," and he's met literally hundreds of new friends along the way. "This is not where I thought I would be [professionally], but I'm proud of where I am, where we are as an organization."
He said the biggest surprise since forming the You Can Play Project is the amount of education needed to be done on the LGBT side of things, educating the LGBT community and especially the LGBT media, about the mainstream sports culture.
"I thought 99 percent of our work would be educating athletes about LGBT culture, but it's actually been about 50-50. I spend a lot of time talking with LGBT people, especially reporters, who aren't familiar with the sports world and educating them on what the sports world is like," Burke said. "It's been hard to explain that locker room culture [to the LGBT community, including the fact that teammates often] make fun of everyone [in a joking manner,] in a bonding manner.
"The locker room is not very politically correct, but that's often how the team dynamic grows and is strengthened."
To learn more about the You Can Play Project, go to youcanplayproject.org/ .
In conjunction with Pride Month, the Chicago Gay Hockey Association (CGHA) released a You Can Play video. The 39-second video features Tony Tiet, Anthony Alfano, Andrew Sobotka, Scott Mix, Stephanie Stock, Paul Lilek, Yazeed AbouSaleh and Lee Kohlergay and straight CGHA teammates. The link to the CGHA is at http://youcanplayproject.org/videos/entry/you-can-play-chicago-gay-hockey-association.