When Brian Burke writes about broken hearts and a deeply held sense of responsibility, his sentiments should resonate across the wide world of sports.
As the former GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs and a senior executive at several other NHL teams, Burke is held in the highest regard for a lifetime dedicated to hockey.
He was with the Leafs in 2010 when his son Brendan died following injuries sustained in a road accident. The 21-year-old’s tragic passing came just months after he had publicly shared his coming out story, headlined by his father’s reaction: ‘We love you, this won’t change a thing’.
Brian Burke channelled his grief into advocacy, continuing to attend Pride parades and co-founding the You Can Play project with another of his children, Patrick.
Understandably, there was considerable anticipation around Burke senior’s reaction to this week’s news that the NHL has banned Pride Tape from the ice. Burke’s statement was posted on X Wednesday.
“I am deeply disappointed in the NHL’s decision to ban on-ice support for community causes,” began Burke, before noting how his work in this space dates back to the late 1980s when he started out in operations with the Vancouver Canucks.
“It has been one of the great joys — and responsibilities — of my life to see the positive impact hockey can have on the community.”
This decision has stripped clubs of a powerful community outreach tool and removed meaningful support for Special Initiatives, all to protect a select few who do not want to answer any questions about their choices. I hope the NHL reconsiders in order to remain a leader in DEI. pic.twitter.com/SM5Fu56w7P— Brian Burke (@Burkie2020) October 11, 2023
In its own statement 24 hours earlier, You Can Play had decried the ban, saying its effect on LGBTQ people was to “eradicate our visibility in hockey” — and Burke echoed that view, highlighting the inevitable impact: erasure.
“This new league policy strips clubs and players of one of the most important and visible ways of supporting causes they care about,” he added.
“This directive closes a door that’s been open for the last decade.”
The symbolism of that metaphor being used on National Coming Out Day, and in light of Brendan’s blog from November 2009, is significant.
Brendan had been a goaltender who made the varsity team at his Boston prep school but walked away, fearing his “secret” of being gay would be discovered. Later, he became student manager of the Miami University in Ohio hockey team and when he told the players and coaches that he was gay, he was met with brotherhood and a concerted effort to stop the use of homophobic slurs in the locker room.
He was looking to the future when he wrote in the blog about his career prospects in hockey and how a law degree “leaves the door open” to pursue politics as well.
Brendan then contemplated how there “definitely would be challenges to being openly gay and working in hockey”. His own view, however, was that “hockey is ready for it” and that any NHL player who might one day do the same would “generally be supported”.
Brendan helped to prise open that door of possibility, and in the years that followed it was pushed ever wider by his father and brother, and the extended You Can Play family.
The NHL’s decision gave weight only to those applying force in the opposite direction, the Pride Night refuseniks and self-appointed hockey purists.
“This is a surprising and serious setback,” adds Brian Burke in his statement. “I have spoken to many who are heartbroken, angry and disappointed.”
He concludes with a vow — “we will not lose the incredible progress we’ve made in inclusion over the last decade” — and a call for accountability from the League.
At the time of writing, neither the NHL nor the NHLPA have made statements through their public-facing channels about the new guidance for so-called ‘special initiatives’.
The lack of leadership is striking and takes agency away from those on the ice. Athlete Ally founder Hudson Taylor wrote Wednesday: “Teams have the power to incorporate their values into how they show up for the communities that love and support them, and players have the power to shine a light on causes and communities that are otherwise invisible or minimized.”
The Alphabet Sports Collective — the LGBTQ in hockey advocacy non-profit organization co-founded by former player Brock McGillis earlier this year — spoke directly to the sport’s queer community in its statement.
“We see you. We share this frustration with you. We have reached out to the NHL and the NHLPA to question this decision, provide rationale of why this change can cause harm, and advocate for it to be reversed,” said the Collective.
Among McGillis’ colleagues on the board of the non-profit is Kurtis Gabriel, who became the first NHL player to play a game with Pride Tape on his stick while with the New Jersey Devils in 2019.
As for the current crop of pros, both Scott Laughton of the Philadelphia Flyers and Jon Merrill of the Minnesota Wild have suggested they might continue to use Pride Tape despite the risk of a fine.
“I hope the NHL reconsiders,” Brian Burke wrote in his post on X. Right now, hockey needs its straight allies to be vocal, upstanding and persuasive, more than ever before.