Brian Burke has been at the forefront of the equal rights movement in hockey, mostly due to the work of his late son, Brendan. The younger Burke was the first high-profile hockey personality to come out as gay, and Brian, the gruff, stoic general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has continued to keep the issue in the public eye since Brendan's death in February 2010.
That continued this week on CBC, when Burke sat down with talk show host George Stromboulopoulos and discussed the potential of a current NHL player coming out in the near future. What would it be like for that player?
Oh, it's going to happen. It's going to happen and it's gonna take less courage than that player thinks.
Right now, a player who's contemplating that is thinking the whole world's going to be arrayed against him and be this mountain he's gotta climb. And I think he's gonna find -- I really believe this, watching the acceptance that my son got when he came out, in the hockey community at Miami University -- this athlete that has the courage to come out, is going to find that hill's a lot less steep than he thinks it is. That there's a lot of support. I know the players on our team have all spoken to me about it, and said, absolutely, a gay player is welcome here.
Burke is clearly very optimistic about the reception a gay player would receive, and the evidence certainly does point in that direction. Brendan Burke wasn't shunned as an outsider when he came out, and when Sean Avery spoke out in favor of equality for gay players in hockey, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
In fact, when one player agent spoke out against Avery's stance with a negative comment, the backlash at that agent actually did more for the movement than any of the other discourse on the topic to date.
There's a ton of support out there for gay rights in hockey as Burke says, but it's still a issue that doesn't seem like it's going away all that easily.
When a player does indeed come out -- hopefully sooner than later -- he might receive a ton of support from fans and media and hockey people alike, but what matters (and what drives the fear for gay players) is the unspoken. The people that will look at him differently than they did before, and judge him unfairly based on his sexual orientation. These people likely won't ridicule the openly gay NHL player in public, but that doesn't necessarily matter, does it?
Until that perception changes, it seems unlikely to me that a player will come out. I agree with Brian Burke that it'll be easier for that player than they realize, but stepping over that line and actually coming out? That's still going to take a ton of courage, but if more people like Burke say things like this on television, maybe that'll make it easier on the gay NHL players that are certainly playing in the league today.