There’s a palpable shift in Patrick Burke’s tone when he speaks of his younger brother Brendan. The articulate, confident New England law student and Philadelphia Flyers scout becomes slightly subdued. Gentle, even.
But Burke, 30, is far from the business of gentle. He handpicks players for a National Hockey League team with a legacy of aggression — the Flyers were notoriously dubbed the Broad Street Bullies during their heyday in the early 1970s. He aspires to be the General Manager of an NHL team. His brusque and red-blooded father, Brian, was GM of three teams in his career. Burke knows first-hand the resilience and grit it takes to manage a professional sports team.
Burke calls Brendan his best friend. But his best friend is gone. Twenty-one-year-old Brendan passed away in a car accident on February 5, 2010.
Just three months before his death, Brendan came out to the world as gay in an intensely public way.
At the time, his dad was GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the most historic franchises in the NHL. Toronto is relentlessly scrutinized by media and followed with diehard passion by its fan base. But instead of hiding from the swarm and speculation that would inevitably follow his father’s high profile, Brendan bravely faced the world with his secret.
He put his story into the hands of ESPN hockey personality John Buccigross in December 2009, who wrote a first-person reflection of Brendan’s coming out to his family.
“Patrick approached me about it and I certainly [knew] the reach of ESPN would benefit Brendan’s message,” Buccigross remembered. “I knew it would be a big deal in Canada since Brian Burke was the GM of Toronto but the impact was a little bigger than I thought.”
Brendan’s coming out sent a jolt through the hyper-masculine hockey world, a sport where there are more gay slurs on the ice than natural front teeth. He’s often considered the first person with such close ties to the NHL to publicly identify as LGBT.
It was the public and fearless coming out that doubled the shock when a car accident on a snowy highway in Indiana stole Brendan’s brilliant light. The world was just beginning to get to know his vibrancy, zeal and passion for LGBT issues.
About a year later, Patrick Burke was working closely with GForce Hockey, a hockey team and advocacy organization comprised of gay male players.
“I had talked to the cofounders and said, look, I wanna do more,” Burke said. “I didn’t know a damn thing about the charity world… So I said to them, I have this idea… I have a motto, ‘If you can play, you can play’ and I think this thing has some legs.”
His motto proved to have more than legs. It had wheels.
A year later, Burke officially announced the You Can Play Project. The organization “seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit.”
“After talking to different groups, seeing what was out there, three of us decided that the only way it was going to be done right was by doing it ourselves,” Burke said. “We didn’t want to give it to somebody else to half ass.” That’s a Burke man, for you — never one to mince words.
YCP just celebrated its first birthday and has already made a lasting impression in professional sports. In addition to youth outreach, the organization has created a series of video campaigns to fight homophobia that include endorsements from prominent players around the league. Most recently, the NHL and the NHL Player’s Association formally announced a partnership with YCP.
The NHL became the first major American professional sports league to officially partner with an LGBT advocacy group on such a large scale.
“Brendan’s willingness to speak out spurred the conversation in the hockey world. It wasn’t being talked about, not being considered,” Burke says. “You Can Play would’ve never come into existence if he hadn’t done it first.”
While Burke speaks so highly of his younger brother’s spark that highlighted the need for LGBT inclusion in sports, Patrick takes little acclaim for what he is due.
Buccigross, who is now on the YCP advisory board, speaks highly of Burke, his trademark steeliness and fierce work ethic.
“How [Brendan’s] brother Patrick has picked up the mantle is touching and powerful. Patrick is much like his father. Very aggressive and straight forward,” Buccigross said. “He can’t get enough credit.”
You Can Play is soon making local impact in partnering with the Miami Marlins, and SFGN, on Friday, June 14 for LGBT and Allies Youth Night. Prior to the first pitch at 7:10 p.m. vs. the St. Louis Cardinals, there will be a social mixer with Marlins players and a panel to discuss LGBT issues in sports. Seven youth-centered organizations will benefit directly from the event: The Pride Center, National Voices for Equality Education & Enlightenment (NVEEE), Pride South Florida, Safe Schools, Sun Serve, and You Pride Band of South Florida.
EXCERPT FROM BRENDAN’S COMING OUT ON ESPN.COM:
“Finally, you say it. Awkwardly. You basically stumble along trying not to make it a big deal before just blurting out, “And I love you guys and wanted to tell you that I’m gay.”
There is a brief silence.
Dad is surprised when you tell him that you are gay. He never suspected at all.
Your stepmom speaks first: “OK, Brendan, that’s OK.” And gives you a reassuring smile. Then your dad says, “Of course, we still love you. This won’t change a thing.”
If someone had told you before coming out that your dad, Brian Burke, would be attending a gay pride parade with you, you wouldn’t have believed it. You never suspected Dad would disown you or anything like that, but the way he has handled it and the way he talks about it now has, honestly, really moved you. He was a little awkward about it at first. Today, he doesn’t even think twice about it.
You want it known that he has been 100 percent supportive of you. It’s important to you that people know that even the president and GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who has a less than sunny public personality, has a gay son and is a firm supporter of gay rights.
IF YOU GO:
Who: The Miami Marlins and the You Can Play Project
What: You Can Play Night / LGBT and Allies Youth Night
Where: Marlins Park, 501 NW 16th Ave, Miami
When: Friday, June 17 at 7:10 p.m.