About five months ago, Patrick Burke (scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and son of Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke), Brian Kitts, and Glenn Witman launched the You Can Play Project. As their website describes, their mission is to ensure equality, respect, and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. Since their launch, You Can Play’s PSA videos have made waves around the sports world, featuring both professional and amateur athletes from the hockey world and beyond.
I recently spoke with Patrick Burke about You Can Play’s involvement in its first Pride Parade, progress the project has made since its launch, and his own personal experience. Patrick also addresses the claim some people have made that his dad, Brian Burke, should not have been involved in the parade because it landed on July 1st, the opening of the NHL’s free agency period.
This is You Can Play’s first time marching in the Pride Parade, correct?
We launched in March so this was the first parade actually that anyone from You Can Play had marched in. It was exciting for us. Going forward, myself, Brian and Glenn [Witman], my cofounders, will be looking to do more. And I should say, because I just misspoke, Tommy Wingels from the San Jose Sharks, the week before the Toronto Pride Parade, actually marched in Chicago Pride representing You Can Play and representing the San Jose Sharks.
Do you know how many of these Pride Parades are going on around North America?
Almost every major city has their own Pride Parade. The biggest ones out there are Toronto, New York’s is pretty huge, Chicago’s is pretty big, Boston was actually pretty big this year, but I mean really every major North American city, with a few exceptions at this point, has some version of a Pride Parade.
Was this your first Pride Parade? I know your dad has marched before.
This was my first time marching. I attended parades before as a spectator, but this is the first time where I’d ever felt that there was any interest in having me March, first of all, and that I felt like I should be out there. It was fun. It was me and Rick Mercer and my dad, and PFLAG which is just a great group that does a lot of great work.
What were some of the goals you were trying to achieve with You Can Play’s participation in Pride Toronto?
In terms of You Can Play, from our perspective, we thought that being there was important because the message that we stand for in the athletic community is something that isn’t often seen at pride parades. You do get, for example, the Toronto Gay Hockey Association march, there was a gay rugby team there. So you get specific teams toward gay athletes, but you often don’t get straight people from the sports world there. It’s a fairly rare event. When Tommy [Wingels] in Chicago, he also marched with Vincent LoVerde who played in the East Coast League.
I called a friend of mine who works with GLAD and said ‘Hey we’re working on a follow up piece. Can you give me a list of all the other athletes who marched in parades this year?’ and he said, ‘You guys are the list. There was no one else.’ So in whatever it is, in the let’s say 50-75 pride parades around North America, there were two professional athletes who marched, and they were Tommy Wingels and Vincent LoVerde. I’m a scout. There’s no glory there. No one knows who I am or cares about who I am, but having anybody there from the sports world who’s willing to step up and say, ‘Hey, the sports world is coming! We’re getting better, and we’re coming around on this.’ I thought it was important that, that voice be represented there.
You sounded disappointed with the two number, but it’s also two more than there were before. Can you talk about the evolution of the You Can Play Project or the process?
I’m not disappointed with the two who did it because Tommy and Vinny are awesome. You Can Play did not ask any athletes to march this year. We felt we’re still a little too new and asking guys to do more than just do the PSAs was a little too aggressive for us, so we didn’t asked anybody to be in there, but when you look at the hundreds of corporations and various groups and how well-represented every other group in society is, we’re a little behind the eight ball.
In terms of the evolution of You Can Play and hockey culture, it think it’s been a good couple months. Back in November when we started emailing guys, we went from, ‘Ok, we’re a little nervous’, ‘Let’s see if these guys will do it.’ We were explaining to guys, ‘No, no, no it’s just this, it’s not this,’ ‘All we need is ten minutes of your time,’ and thing like that. Now, hockey players call me. They say ‘Hey, I really want to get involved. What can I do?’ We’ve been getting a ton of the ones that are, ‘My brother-in-law is gay, my sister-in-law is gay, my sister’s best friend,’ you know. So all that type of stuff where the athletes are coming to us saying, “Hey, I’ve got a personal connection with this issue. I’d really like to be involved.’ The fact that we’ve gone from asking and convincing people to be involved in it, to now at the point where it’s almost cool. It’s almost trendy for athletes to do this in hockey. It’s something that the best players are doing. It’s something that the guys want to be a part of because it’s something that’s cool to be a part of, so I think that’s a big, big deal.
I think I understand what you mean by trendy.
I don’t mean it like they’re doing it like a style. I just mean it’s something that’s important to these guys, and for decades athletes have been told and trained that they’re not supposed to speak out on this issue. I mean really, you look at athletes in terms of political causes, this is one of the last ones for athletes to ever get behind. Nowadays, they’re living in these major cities, they have gay neighbours and gay friends, their wife hangs out with gay people, and it’s no longer this big, weird, foreign thing that they’re not exposed to. Now they know what these people are going through.
Has this been easier than you thought?
In terms of getting culture to shift, yes. In terms of day-to-day workload, it’s been much much much more than I thought it would be.
Has being in the public eye been a part of that? You mentioned that nobody knows who you are, but I don’t think that’s true anymore.
Yeah I’m doing interviews, and yeah I’m doing the rare appearance and that type of stuff, but it’s more of the day-to-day leg work of running a charity that’s taking up the time. Sending emails, reaching out to corporate sponsors, and that type of stuff. There’s been nothing about being anything like a public figure that’s changed anything about my life.
Any final thoughts about You Can Play, Pride, and your experience?
It was a fun experience. The people who run Toronto Pride do a great job. We were very lucky to march with Irene Miller and PFLAG. It’s just a great group. I really think it’s something that’s worth seeing and worth attending for anyone who hasn’t been. It’s a good time, you go down, drink a couple beers, and watch the parade. Next year any of your readers who haven’t been to one should go down and take a look.
If we can’t bring people together with beers and a parade, I don’t know what you can do.
Exactly! It was 100 degrees out, everyone was drinking, and every girl there was dressed to impress. I kept walking around going ‘Why aren’t more straight guys here right now?’
Did you want to touch on the Leafs “controversy”?
The Pride Parade was on July 1st. That was the first day of free agency, and now we’re seeing some random idiots who are using that to say that my dad wasn’t doing his job. If you want to criticize moves that the Leafs have made or haven’t made over the past few years, that’s fine. That’s how sports works. That’s what the media and the fans are there for, to say ‘I don’t like this trade, I don’t like that trade, I like this signing, I don’t like that signing.’
But for anyone to use You Can Play and to use Toronto Pride as a means to criticize the Maple Leafs and my dad and the job that’s being done there is just over the top in its ignorance. It shows that they’re not paying attention to how much he cares. It shows that they’re now aware of how cell phones work if you needed to be in touch with somebody. It shows they’re not aware of how great of a support staff the Toronto Maple Leafs have with Dave Nonis and Dave Poulin and the rest of them there. It shows they’re not aware of how free agency works.
These players don’t get on the phone and get recruited by a GM for hours and hours on July 1st. The GM calls the agent and says, ‘Hey. We want to sign Steve. We’ll give him two years at $2 million.’ and the agent says, ‘Well he’ll go there, but it’s got to be three years at $2.5 million.’ and they say ‘Ok. Done.’ That’s it, with the exception of the occasional big guy who does recruiting trips and that type of stuff. These contracts get done in a matter of minutes. All you need to know is what that guy’s price range is. Anyone who’s using this to criticize the Maple Leafs is just embarrassing himself.
I recently read an in-depth article on the long process of how the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter deals in Minnesota got done, and there didn’t seem to be much mention of July 1st.
I can’t comment specifically on either Suter or Parise just because I don’t know, but I know the bigger name guys, historically, guys who like to take a week or so and take their time and find their way around, July 1st means almost nothing to them. You send them an offer that day, they wait for offers, they go visit the city, and then yes, there’s some recruitment involved. Then they call back and say ‘Who’s my defence partner going to be?’ ‘Who’s my center going to being?’ ‘I want to talk to your head coach, I want to know how he’s going to use me.’ That type of stuff. That happens with some of the big star guys. Those deals don’t get done on July 1st.
As I said, anyone who’s using July 1st and the Pride Parade to criticize my father is just absolutely missing the point on how this works. He was on the phone probably every four or five minutes, checking constantly, checking regularly. He took a couple calls during the parade. I know for a fact there are media people out there who took pictures and video of him on the phone while marching, and he was in constant contact. If for whatever reason a free agent had said ‘I really need to talk to Brian Burke right now’, that could have happened within about 30 seconds. If you want to criticize the moves that are made or not made or anything like that, that’s fine. I get it. Don’t drag us into that stuff.
You can learn more about the You Can Play Project at http://youcanplayproject.org