Edmonton, AB - Ryan Jones' endorsement of You Can Play -- an organization dedicated to ensuring equality and respect among athletes, regardless of his or her sexual orientation -- is clear, and it was represented well with a public service announcement released on Monday with a simple message:
'I believe in equality.'
In locker rooms across the sporting world, past and present and because of ignorance or immaturity (or both), the message is challenged.
Jones, 28, and having been in locker rooms at nearly every level in hockey, is now doing what he can to help eliminate homophobia. Still, he couldn't deny he once got caught up in it at a younger age.
"I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't guilty of making the comments and saying things," he said Tuesday at the Kinsmen Twin Arenas in south Edmonton. "Usually when you say things, it's not meant to hurt in the way that it does -- it's just something that you say. But it really does hurt, it gets to the core of the LGBT community."
The Chatham, Ontario native didn't know it at the time during his career with the Miami University of Ohio RedHawks, but he had a gay teammate: Brendan Burke, 21 at the time, who was tragically killed in a car accident in February of 2010. First to his family in 2007 and then to his teammates two years later, Brendan came out, spoke out, and began advocating tolerance and speaking out against homophobia in professional sports.
Brendan's brother, Patrick, has continued his brother's relentless mission by serving as You Can Play's president. Countless NHL players, including Jones, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Whitney have contributed to the cause as well by raising awareness about how an athlete's skill and competitive desire are all that matter.
As proven, as Jones would readily admit, a little education can go a long way.
"It's extremely important," Jones said. "[Brendan was] was an unbelievable guy all around. He did huge things for our team and the organization. He was part of what we called 'The Brotherhood' when I was there. He truly believed in it and as a friend, you try to carry on his legacy and his belief that there should be equality all over -- whether it's in sports or everyday living, that nobody should be discriminated against based on sexuality or who they are."
According to Patrick, Brendan's greatest challenge was battling through it all without someone in a similar situation on his side -- a role model in which he could look up to and be inspired by because of the trials he's won.
With more athletes getting involved, it's You Can Play's hope that these NHLers -- Jones included -- will be that to someone.
"We hope all the young players who look up to Ryan on the ice will learn from his character and integrity off the ice," Patrick said in a statement.
"Patrick and Brian (Burke, Brendan's father and Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager) have done amazing," Jones said. "In the short time they've had to put together You Can Play, the support they've got from players and the community in general is astonishing. It goes to show that people are there to support these guys and support the LGBT community."
You Can Play has and will continue to be a collective effort. Patrick and Brian Burke have obviously been integral to the program's rise and success, but Miami's ‘Brotherhood' helped start it all with monetary donations to their good friend's cause.
"Andy Miele (Phoenix Coyotes) and Tommy Wingels (San Jose Sharks) are two Miami guys that have been huge to You Can Play. They're two young guys that got the ball rolling, got players involved and showed them how evolved things have become in the game of hockey and in the community itself."
Worldwide, problems persist with regards to homophobia in the locker room, but based on what Jones is hearing in and around the National Hockey League, it's getting better.
Better than it ever has, thanks to Brendan's tireless work and the support shown from past teammates and the brotherhood that exists; not only with Miami, but in the entirety of the hockey world and surrounding community as a whole.
"In the locker room, to be honest, you hardly ever hear it anymore."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick