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Bruins Support You Can Play, "Hockey is for Everyone"

by Caryn Switaj @NHLBruins /

Throughout the month of February, the National Hockey League is celebrating "Hockey Is For Everyone" month. 


The support, awareness, and activism that surrounds the initiative transcends the sport. 


"Hockey Is For Everyone" uses the game of hockey - and the League's global influence - to drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities. It supports any teammate, coach, or fan who brings heart, energy, and passion to the rink.

While "Hockey Is For Everyone" is all encompassing, it naturally shines a spotlight on You Can Play, an organization with its roots in the hockey world, committed to supporting the LGBTQ community and fighting homophobia in sports.


The Bruins held a night in support of You Can Play during Saturday's game against the Vancouver Canucks. Both teams used Pride Tape in warmups, while coaches, executives, and broadcasters wore pins.



You Can Play was born out of one young man's light and courage. 


Brendan Burke, son of current Calgary Flames President Brian Burke and a Canton, Mass. native, simply did what others had not done in the hockey world: he told the world that he was gay, and he made it his mission to spread a message of inclusion. 


In 2009, he publicly came out. He was the manager and video assistant for the Miami (Ohio) University men's hockey team. They accepted him for the shining light that he was. His family did, too. 


Brendan was never able to carry out his mission on his own. On his way back to Miami in 2010, he was killed in a car accident on February 5, at just 21 years old. 


Despite the darkness and despair, his mission lived on, and two years later in 2012, his vision was immortalized when his brother Patrick founded the You Can Play Project, along with Brian Kitts and Glenn Witman. The message was simple: "If you can play, you can play."


It was born out of the belief that the focus should be on an athlete's skills, work ethic, and competitive spirit, not their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. The mission has stretched far beyond players, to include coaches, fans, and everyone involved.


Bruins forward Austin Czarnik, who played at Miami University from 2011-2015, was a part of the first You Can Play PSA with his Miami teammates, including Bruins prospect Sean Kuraly. While Czarnik never knew Brendan, his impact was felt, especially in a program that has always prided itself on being "The Brotherhood."


"When I came to Miami, Brendan had passed away a year before, so all of the guys talked about it. It was part of our culture," Czarnik recalled. "And when he told everyone that he was gay and he came out, everyone was accepting of it, they didn't look at him any differently. He was scared, I think, that some guys might turn away, but all of the guys were great with it. When someone can do that, and have the courage to do that, I think that's huge. It really brought the program closer."


"The tragedy was terrible - it hit everyone hard within the program. There's a jersey that hangs up in the coach's locker room, and it's still there, that has his initials on it and his own name on the back, so the things that they've done there to welcome in everyone is huge. I'm happy that it started there and I was able to be a part of it. To be able to take that in, and learn from it, and welcome everyone."


Since 2012, the organization's impact has significantly grown, and has now become a big part of the NHL's "Hockey is for Everyone" initiative.


"When everyone can join together and join forces, I think that's huge," said Czarnik. "If a player's good enough to play, I don't think that should be a problem with anyone, and if they're there for the same goal as you, to win, then they should be welcomed, no matter what."



While "Hockey is for Everyone" has been around for years, this year marks the first time that each of the 30 NHL clubs has a player serving as a You Can Play ambassador - a leader in the locker room and in the community on diversity, equality, and inclusion. These players lead the way in their communities and strive to fight homophobia in sports. 


This may not seem like a big deal to some; it is a ray of hope to countless others. 


"The true testament of the NHL and NHLPA is seen through Hockey Is For Everyone month, especially when it comes to You Can Play - the fact that all 30 clubs have an ambassador, is such a moment of solidarity," said Jillian Svensson, Vice President of Operations and Development for You Can Play.


"I think that's a very powerful message, and the fact that there's been so much visibility, with Pride Tape, with PSAs, with the games, with the ambassadors, it's so important, because the visibility matters," said Svensson.


On the Bruins roster, Brad Marchand is leading the charge as the club's You Can Play Ambassador.


"When I was asked, it was something that right away, it's something that I'm happy to be a part of," said Marchand. "It's good to get the word out there, that there's a lot of support from the hockey community, and we want to show that."


"I think that's the biggest thing here, is we want to get the word out there, that it doesn't matter what your beliefs are, we want everyone to love the game," said Marchand. "And there's a tremendous amount of respect in the game and in the league and in the hockey world, so we just want to get that out there."


Video: Bruins host You Can Play Game


"These ambassadors, they're role models," said Svensson. "What we've learned in our work with You Can Play, is that you never know when you're going to get to somebody when they need you the most. Anything is a turning point for someone who is struggling, so that's why the Pride Tape matters, that's why the games, the PSAs."


Last March, Patrice Bergeron offered his support for the LGBTQ community.  


"Our team believes that everyone should be treated equally, everywhere they go," he said in a video. "Transgender people deserve the same right as everyone else in our state, and everyone is welcome at a Bruins game."



Like the Bruins, numerous NHL teams are hosting special You Can Play nights, with members of the local LGBTQ community being celebrated, and the Pride Tape being used by the players during warmups.


"We're on a stage where we can get the word out there and show our support, and I think that' the biggest thing," said Marchand. "Is letting everyone know that we stand behind them, and we support them, and we believe that everyone should have the opportunity to find love, and they should feel comfortable, and be allowed to be happy."


That hit home for a Bruins fan at Saturday's game, when she saw the players using Pride Tape in warmups and watched an interview with Marchand that played in-arena. 


"It means the world to me, personally," said Hannah, a lifetime fan from Stoughton, Mass. who attended the game with her mother Shannon, and with her girlfriend of seven years, Melissa. "I can't even explain how much I appreciate that. I saw Brad do his interview earlier. It's just, you want to feel included, everybody should be able to feel included, and not alienated, and I think You Can Play does an amazing job of doing that. Hopefully it just goes up from here."



Most of us never knew Brendan Burke. We never had a chance to experience the light that so many speak of - the light that radiated from his love and kindness, the light that burst from his his ability to be himself and let go, and the immeasurable light that he saw in others. 


We never had that opportunity. But we do have the opportunity, and the privilege, to see his mission carried out - a mission that continues to impact so many people in the smallest of ways, like it did for Hannah.


"Every day, we do this honoring Brendan's legacy," said Svensson. "We are so humbled and grounded by the fact that we're working on a message that is so important, and his spirit is all around it."


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