Brendan Burke’s Lasting Legacy
Brendan Burke still isn’t a house-hold name and may never be, but in a few year’s time we could very well be talking about that brave gay NHLer who took the plunge and became North America’s first pro athlete who came out of the closet while still an active player. In that moment, those of us who remember hearing Brendan’s story will know it all started with him.
It began with an incredibly-touching piece by ESPN columnist John Buccigross. Brendan Burke, a student manager with the Miami (OH) RedHawks men’s hockey team and son of über-macho Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, came out to his family and colleagues as a 21-year-old. It seemingly didn’t even phase his closest confidants, and honestly, I don’t think there could’ve been a better reception of his decision than that. What followed, though, was surprising.
In a sporting community that so readily shrugged off the prospect of homosexual involvement, the overwhelming support that poured forth was stunning. Brendan was hailed a pioneer for the courage he displayed in making his decision. The pro sports scene in North America, the world which he could have graduated to following college if he chose to instead of a career in law, looked to be welcoming him with open arms. Having the Burke name certainly helped.
Tragically, it all ended on an icy road. Brendan Burke, all full of vibrance and a calm mind since his reveal, lost his life with a close friend after his vehicle slid and crashed during a winter storm. The memorial service that celebrated his life and mourned his death was packed like a rock concert. The Burke family and his closest friends were joined by the RedHawks who all wore a special clover patch with “BB” stitched inside on their red road sweaters, and his father’s Maple Leafs were all there as well. Fittingly, it was John Buccigross who wrote a stellar tribute to the young man.
Months later, Brendan’s triumph has grown into a tree that will yield the fruits of his decision for years to come. First, his father announced his partnership with an advocacy website dedicated to fighting homophobia in schools. This summer, Brian Burke will even march in the Toronto Pride parade in his son’s honor. Then a story surfaced that Team USA wore dog tags commemorating Brendan during their silver medal run in Vancouver. Just three days ago, Patrick – Brendan’s older brother – wrote a piece for Out Sports (one of the Internet’s biggest gay sports communities) celebrating the positive influences his brother has had on pro hockey and the acceptant culture of the NHL. What Patrick had to say is incredible. Even more incredible is that Brent Sopel, a member of the 2010 Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks and now a Thrasher, volunteered to represent the organization in the Chicago pride parade and will have the Stanley Cup itself with him and his family.
In a comment on an Out Sports story, I stated that when the time comes that a gay athlete finally comes out of the closet in North America, I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that it will be an NHLer. The camaraderie and brotherhood in an NHL locker room is unsurpassed on this continent. They are a collection of men from two continents and countless countries speaking a myriad of different languages who put their teammates before themselves in any situation. They go to battle for their brothers night in and night out, regardless of their differences. A gay player in their midst, I believe, would just be one more difference an NHL team would look past in their yearly crusade to win the Cup. Hell, in recent polls, the indifference shown to a player coming out is huge. When the overwhelming number of NHL players say they don’t care if they have a gay teammate because it doesn’t matter if he’s straight or not just solidifies my belief.
When it finally happens, I hope said player looks back and thanks Brendan for breaking the ice and showing to the world that the hockey community is a supportive and inclusive place. What a lasting legacy that would be.