Brian Burke’s other legacy: You Can Play – Guest Post

There are many hockey scribes creating a din of clickity-clack noises writing up their feelings about and interpretations of Brian Burke. Most will focus on his W/L record, his personnel changes, his necktie… and those will be interesting reads and likely points for discussion for weeks to come:

If the Leafs start winning in this shortened season, will he be blamed for the whole lot? 

If they do/do not get Luongo, does that have to do with Burke? 

If the club ends in last place, did they get rid of Burke too soon?

Check any newspaper, blog or TV correspondent over the next little while and Burke will be mentioned in some fashion or another, talking about legacy, next moves, could haves and should haves.

But I won’t be doing that. People with much greater qualifications than I are already doing a might fine job of that.

As a long suffering Leafs fan (who gets it worse for being a Canucks fan, too….oh, hi Brian again!), I invest myself into this team and often thought over the last 4 years what Burke’s plan was. There were questionable trades, missed opportunities and very little hockey-sided occurrences that brought me to think the Leafs had much hope a lot of the time. I know I’m not the only one who thinks/thought that.

However, I will forget much of that as the fog of time settles in and hockey carries on. What I will not forget is what Brian Burke and his family did for the LGBTQ community in Toronto and, if I may be so bold, around the globe. 

You see, I’m a gay hockey fan.  I write for one of the few gay hockey blogs that I know of. I was content just being a hockey fan, not knowing of any gay hockey bars or even having any gay hockey friends. While being at a gay hockey bar with gay hockey friends is not a prerequisite to enjoy hockey (I managed to do it successfully for 20 years), I always felt slightly othered. And it always seemed to confuse people when I told them I was gay after they knew for years how voraciously I loved hockey. One friend sticks out to me to this day, as her reaction was typical of this: “You’re gay? But you like hockey!”

It was as if the two were mutually exclusive: masculine sports endeavours were innately heterosexual and any crossover was confusing and hard to reconcile. Many people did not understand that these sexuality binaries constructed in media or even majority societal belief about sport were incorrect. 

The first challenge to this belief I vividly recall was when I saw Brian Burke marching in the Toronto Gay Pride Parade. It was something I had never seen before: a powerful hockey figure of arguably the most well-known hockey franchise marching as an ally in the Pride parade. It was a visual depiction of sport and the gay community coming together, they were not (and never were, to be fair) mutually exclusive. Such a simple act, marching down the street, meant the world to me and I’m sure countless other gay hockey fans, not just in Toronto but around the world. In one instant, Brian Burke represented to me what could be, the inclusiveness that sport in general had been (and still is) lacking. From that moment forward, while I may have chastised hockey decisions until I was hoarse, he represented something far greater than the game to me. I never met Brian at a parade, but it did foment a trajectory that would lead to it.

I was approached to be a part of the Puckbuddys blog (gay hockey blog aforementioned) in or around September 2011. After learning what it was about, I was an enthusiastic yes. I had no idea what it would bring, no idea if it would take off or if people would like it. But I didn’t care, I finally amalgamated the gay and hockey loving sides of myself into one whole. After seeing what Brian did to me personally, I felt I had an outlet to share this with an audience, any audience.

My first assignment kind of fell to me geographically I think. Early in November 2011, Outsports Toronto was having their annual Scrum where Brian’s son, Patrick, was giving the keynote. Now I knew of the Burkes’ efforts to continue Brendan’s legacy, and obviously knew about Brian marching in the parade, so this was a pretty big deal to me. My first assignment as a fresh blogger and I got to interview Patrick about his and his dad’s efforts. Sufficed to say I was quite nervous about this, I was meeting someone who I looked up to a great deal, who was doing an immensely positive thing. But Patrick could not have been any nicer and down to earth if he tried. We spoke for probably 45 minutes inside a loud Starbucks at the corner of Yonge/Wellesley. I then walked him to where he was giving the keynote. He gave a stirring, heartwrenching and heartwarming speech about his brother, about his father, about his family and about LGBTQ people and the intersection with sport. 

The article I eventually wrote was something I was incredibly proud of. If I wrote nothing else ever, I’d consider my blogging foray a success. 

It’s only in hindsight that I recall Patrick dropping a hint of something big to come. He and his father were working on something in the NHL in relation to the LGBTQ community, but he didn’t elaborate and I really didn’t ask. I recall getting more hints dropped, but had no idea what would come of it. And then this:

When You Can Play started, it was like a warm hug. It was no longer just the Burkes, but players, teams, giving me and all gay fans, athletes and allies a light in the dark saying that there were people looking out for you, that all fans and athletes belonged in the game. It no longer became a Toronto the city or Toronto the team phenomenon of one truly amazing father and family’s torch-bearing for an inspiring son, but a global push, by the biggest names in hockey, to show that gay athletes and fans should feel at home in the stands or the locker room. 

You Can Play meant a lot for me, especially as I’d see the PSA show in the ACC during a game or see pictures people would post of it playing in other arenas around the league or around the US and Canada. It meant a lot to a bunch of people, including a friend who, because of You Can Play and the Burkes, decided to keep playing hockey and now plays at the pro-level in France

It also meant a lot to see how openly the Leafs and Marlies embraced the YCP message. The biggest hockey brand in the world saw what they believed was a vitally important project and signed up for it full-fledged. Did Brian Burke influence this? Maybe, but that’s immaterial, as other teams and players took up this cause. It has expanded to various levels of hockey, from Vancouver to Tampa and all places in between. Gay athletes can now see there is a strong effort to make locker rooms more equal across the hockey world, and gay fans can see that they are beyond more than welcome at a game.

I’d keep in occasional contact with Patrick, asking questions or being told of upcoming events, but it was at the draft in Pittsburgh where I finally got to meet Brian himself. Puckbuddys had been given media credentials for the draft and had their hometown Pens guy, Adam, on task with both Craig and Doug (the original Puckbuddys) along with. Along with a few friends I met up with at the arena, we went to meet up with Craig, Doug and Adam in the media area. Patrick was there, we made small talk for a bit, but eventually moved off to the Puckbuddys spot for the draft. We saw Dale Hunter and other hockey names milling about, but then Brian came up alongside for an interview with Sportsnet. We were all a little taken aback, not expecting to get this close. We didn’t want to impose him or leer during the interview, so we withdrew. Save for the one who stuck around to ask if he’d take two minutes to meet us (I think it was Craig…). And he did. He shook all of our hands, told us we did good work but that he couldn’t stay around, hockey business. Little did we (or anybody) know at the time that he had just traded Luke Schenn. And that’s how my Burke trajectory ended, with meeting the big guy himself. While brief, it showed his care. 

So while many will focus on how Burke’s tenure with the Leafs didn’t translate to a Cup or to even a playoff run, it translated to bringing people together: gay or straight, Torontonians, Leafs fans or not… His legacy for me will be one of city building, barrier breaking and inspiration. I will never forget what he did for gay athletes or fans in the city or globally. I will not forget how tireless he was, along with his family, to show that gay and sport can go hand in hand. And hopefully the media in Toronto and around the hockey world will not forget either. As he said in Saturday’s press conference, not being GM will not “change my focus or my commitment. I think it carries less weight…but I don’t intend to change any of the things I do community-wise. It’s in my DNA.” I certainly hope that the media in Toronto (or in general) does not forget this in the din of questions and speculations. Brian Burke did so much more than be a GM, hopefully the focus still remains on him and the good work he has done and will continue to do. 

So while I may not have a Cup to brag about or a more pleasing win-loss record to hold in conversation and, yes, I may still be the brunt of jokes as a Leafs fan, I have a feeling of belonging I never had before. And that no one can ever, ever take away from me.

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  • Nice post, Andrew. It has been so amazing to watch how You Can Play has changed the landscape for gay fans, and eventually gay players, in hockey. When I first became a hockey fan and jumped on Twitter a few years ago, I thought for sure I would be shunned. Instead I was pleasantly surprised at the warm welcome I received from so many other hockey fans even before You Can Play started. For gay guys, hockey is one of the more open, accepting sports right now, and the Burkes have been a big part of making that happen. Kudos to them, and kudos to you for blogging about their work and contributions on PuckBuddys.

    But I’m still going to kick your ass in fantasy hockey! XOXO

  • Great post, Andrew. Burke’s impact in the LGBTQ with Right to Play and appearances in the pride parade are what I hope his legacy is. When he was fired, I had friends who don’t even watch hockey start telling me how disappointed they were he was gone.

    I really hope the Leafs keep his efforts alive.

  • IIRC, there was a study that looked into whether players in any of the four major North American sports leagues would accept a gay teammate. NHL was, by far, the highest (>90% would accept). The other three leagues, from what I recall, didn’t move past 60% (In order of most accepting to least: NFL, NBA, and MLB). It’s great to see such acceptance in the NHL and I hope to see that spread to other sports (MLB has had troubles recently with the Yunel Escobar incident and Torii Hunter’s comments).