Just weeks before his death in an auto accident, Brendan Burke, the student manager for the Miami University hockey team and son of long-time NHL general manager Brian Burke, had made the brave decision to speak out against homophobia in sports. Following his brother's passing, Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke decided to take Brendan's cause even further.
The result of Patrick Burke's relentless work is the You Can Play Project, one of the fastest-growing volunteer initiatives in sports. Burke co-founded the project in 2011 along with marketing expert Brian Kitts and Glenn Witman, the founder of GForce Sports, a sports organization that advocates on behalf of gay and lesbian athletes.
"I e-mailed every NHL general manager and said, 'This is what we're doing. We'd like players to participate.' Within 12 hours we had players calling saying, 'I'm in, what do I do?'" -- Patrick Burke
"In the wake of my brother's accident, I decided I'm doing something," Patrick Burke, who got to know Kitts and Witman while participating in a public forum at Denver University, said. "I moderated this forum at Denver University. At the end of it I turned to Glenn and I said, 'I don't care if you like me or not, you guys are stuck with me now.'"
Almost immediately, Burke began reaching out to his friends in the hockey community, including his father and NHL players Andy Miele and Tommy Wingels, both of whom had befriended Brendan Burke while playing at Miami. With their signature message informing all athletes that "if you can play, you can play," the program made its mark with a video in which many of the NHL's top players voiced their support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) athletes.
"I e-mailed every NHL general manager and said, 'This is what we're doing. We'd like players to participate,'" Burke told NHL.com. "Within 12 hours we had players calling saying, 'I'm in, what do I do?' Then we got the filming done and launched it."
One year since that first video was produced, pro and amateur athletes from all over North America have made their own videos joining the You Can Play Project's cause. Nashville Predators minority owner W. Brett Wilson even made his own video.
"I've grown up in the hockey community, I believe in the hockey community. I knew that our guys wouldn't let me down," Burke, who has turned a simple message into a powerful initiative, said. "This is what sports does. It's the great leveler of the playing field because once you step on the ice nothing else matters but what you produce. It doesn't matter if you're black or white. It doesn't matter if you're gay or straight. And it's such a community. There's really no such thing as a casual hockey fan."