Patrick Burke, the NHL’s director of player safety, says that if anyone had once told him he’d either run a gay hockey foundation or “had walked on Mars, I would have picked Mars 100 times out of 100."
Ten years later, Burke still hasn’t walked in space, but he did co-found You Can Play Project, an organization for gay athletes and straight allies.
On Saturday, the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center in Sunrise will host the national LGBT sports group’s first You Can Play Equality Night.
"This is going to be the test kitchen on us going forward," said Burke, son of former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and older brother of Brendan, who made headlines after coming out at age 21 in Nov. 2009 — three months before dying in an Indiana auto crash.
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“After his car accident I decided I wanted to do more in the LGBT movement, so here we are,” Burke said.
The Burke family has been involved in professional hockey since the late 1970s. Brian Burke played a few years in the AHL, went to Harvard Law School and became a players’ agent. Patrick was a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Brendan played a bit in high school, but didn’t seriously consider a hockey career because of his sexual orientation. His coming out in college got huge media attention after dad Brian (“an old-school Irish guy,” according to Patrick) publicly stood by him.
“For both myself and my father, the first gay person we knew was my brother,” Patrick Burke said. “This was all new to us, it was not something we were exposed to. We went from 0 to 60 in advocacy on this issue.”
Brian and Patrick didn’t slow down after Brendan’s death. They moved ahead, founded You Can Play and continue to speak out to athletes and other sports figures about gay rights.
“We tell people that at some point someone in their life is going to come out,” Patrick said. “It’s becoming more commonplace for LGBT people to come out. Maybe it’s not your son or your brother, but a co-worker. Somebody on your team. Or maybe a fan who loves you.”
Patrick said it’s also smart business for a pro team to support gay rights.
“We’re an entertainment business. We’re required to sell tickets to survive and alienating LGBT fans is not something we want to do,” he said.
The Panthers have been on-board since the beginning.
“We’ve enlisted numerous professional athletes and the Panthers have done a great job and been leaders in this,” Patrick said.
Star defenseman Brian Campbell, along with Tampa Bay Lightning Center Steven Stamkos, recorded a You Can Play video last year.
Panthers President and CEO Michael R. Yormark recently told ESPN’s Darren Rovell, “The gay population is a group we are trying to reach and better understand.”
“We’re breaking down barriers, changing people’s mindsets, event letting people in the gay community know they are welcome at a game,” said Brandon Loker, 25, a gay Panthers account executive helping organize Saturday’s event, a fundraiser for the Pride Center in Wilton Manors.
Eric Pinder, director in residence for Florida Opera Theater in Orlando, will be there. A longtime hockey fan, he writes for PuckBuddys, a website “for boys who like boys who like hockey.”
PuckBuddys is “written by gay men but is followed primarily by straight people,” said Pinder, who covers Tampa Bay and is seeking someone to write about the Panthers. “Think about it, there are more straight fans than gay.”
Pinder said PuckBuddys “makes people feel more inclusive about their sport.”
“We’re not dilettantes. We’re not being paid for it, but we know our stuff,” he said. “It speaks to me as a gay man and as a hockey fan. Hockey is viewed as such a tough-guys sport, with the fighting and conditioning that you have to have in order to play. This sort of macho thing. It is, but in reality, they were the first people to embrace the LGBT community. They said it doesn’t matter to us.”