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You Can Play Project caps eventful first year with NHL

by Dave Lozo /

The You Can Play Project has been around for a little more than a year, but it has already made great strides in the hockey world and sports community at large with its message of tolerance and education on LGBT issues in sports.

You Can Play took its biggest step forward yet Thursday, announcing an official partnership with the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players' Association, the first of its kind between the social activist group and a professional sports league and its players.

Patrick Burke, one of the three founders of You Can Play, is thrilled with the message the partnership sends.

"The NHL and the NHLPA [are]coming together and saying this is something from an ownership side, from a management side, from a player side, that we all believe that players and coaches and management and fans who are LGBT should be welcomed and feel safe and included in our arenas an our communities," Burke told


NHL, NHLPA partner with You Can Play
The National Hockey League Players' Association and the National Hockey League today announced a historic partnership with the You Can Play Project that formalizes and advances their long-standing commitment to make the NHL the most inclusive professional sports league in the world. READ MORE ›

Burke, along with Brian Kitts and Glenn Witman of GForce Sports, founded You Can Play on March 4, 2012. The organization's goal is to ensure equality, respect and safety for all athletes without regard to sexual orientation. You Can Play wants to foster an environment where LGBT athletes (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) feel welcome in the locker room and in the stands among fans.

Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and son of longtime NHL general manager Brian Burke, was inspired to start You Can Play following the death of his younger brother, Brendan, who was killed in a car accident in February 2010. Brendan, a student manager for the Miami University Redhawks hockey team, announced he was gay in 2009 and actively worked to eliminate homophobia in hockey.

With the NHL now completely on board -- many players and teams have lent support during the past year through videos and statements -- Burke said he believes this could be the first step in getting other sports leagues to follow suit.

"I think it's amazing," Burke told "It's a tribute to Commissioner [Gary] Bettman and [NHLPA head Donald] Fehr on this issue. I think we're now -- not that we weren't before because I think we were before -- we're clearly setting the pace for the other leagues. We're putting a blueprint in place that other leagues are going to have to try to play catch-up on."

Two very public issues involving homophobia put You Can Play to the test during the past year, and Burke said he believes his group's response to those situations is a big reason it has earned the trust of the NHL and other sports institutions.

In July, New Jersey Devils forward Cam Janssen appeared on a radio show and created a firestorm by making disparaging comments about homosexuals.

Burke considers instances like these "crisis situations," and said despite it being the first for You Can Play, the way it was handled allowed Janssen to see the error of his ways and gave the group a new ally.

"Cam and I have stayed in regular contact, and I think he'd be the first guy to say he appreciates all the work we've been doing," Burke said. "At the time when Cam said that, I had a lot of people telling me that this was going to be great for us because I can get Cam kicked out of the League. He's an enforcer and not a star player saying this. 'Now you can step up and demand he get kicked out of the League. You can really build your brand. You guys are going to be the ones that hammer athletes on this.'

"I was confused and appalled by that because my first reaction was, 'I can't wait to get Cam on the phone and talk to him about this,' and that's what I did. Now Cam and I stay in touch. I think he really came around on the issue and he really was educated. I think Cam's really one of our success stories of the past year."

Another challenge was presented to You Can Play in September when Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar wrote a gay slur in Spanish on his eye black. The team suspended Escobar, now a member of the Tampa Bay Rays, for three games for the incident.

Two weeks later, Burke sat down to talk with Escobar and said it presented a unique challenge. Escobar, a native of Cuba, does not have a strong command of the English language, making a conversation in which Escobar could be educated on LGBT issues more difficult.

Burke enlisted the assistance of gay athlete Jose Estevez, a member of Boston College's track and field team. You Can Play partners with GO! ATHLETES, the first national network dedicated to educating, engaging and empowering every generation of LGBTQ (the Q stands for athletes questioning their sexual orientation) athletes and allies, to give athletes like Escobar some perspective on what it's like to be an LGBT athlete in a team sport.

By using the weapons of education and tolerance, Burke said he felt he reached Escobar and Janssen, and said he believes the success of that technique will lead to more support from other major sports leagues.

"I think now the other leagues can see that this is a group that does things right, that isn't going to embarrass their brand or try to create controversy or try to build our reputation and our work on the backs of athletes and leagues," Burke said. "We've been unofficial partners with the NHL for a year, and now other leagues have to look at that and say, 'Look, the NHL trusts these guys and did a great job.' I think other leagues should be looking at this now as something they should emulate."

During the past year, You Can Play has received support from American Hockey League teams, college conferences and universities, the ECHL and Major League Soccer. The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League and the Canadian Women's Hockey League announced an official partnership in December 2012.

With the NHL now on board in an official capacity, You Can Play can likely expect to receive even more support in the sports community.

"I think the growth has been tremendous," Burke said. "The support we've gotten from NHL players and executives and fans and media has really driven this to the point where we are now in a position where the League wants to hop on board. When we went through the discussion with the League, the questions they had -- how do players feel about this, how do fans feel about this, how does management feel about this -- we were able to say honestly and emphatically they were supportive because of everything that happened over the past year.

"It's been a hectic year. I think we are now where we hoped to have ended up. I think there's a little bit of cause for celebration on this one. We're not done yet, but a map has been set forward in the sports world."



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