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Burke is a Fierce Advocate for the LGBTQ+ Community

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Penguins president of hockey operations Brian Burke has marched in Pride parades all over North America - making stops in Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary and New York - and was vocal about wanting to do the same right here in Pittsburgh when it was safe to do so.

He got the chance on June 5, taking part in the Pittsburgh Pride Revolution March with members of the Penguins organization while wearing a Brendan Burke sweater in honor of his late son. The march began downtown at the City-County Building and ended in Allegheny Commons Park West for a mini-festival.

"I was proud to march this weekend in Pittsburgh in my son Brendan's memory and in support of my LGBTQ+ friends," Burke said. "It was a great turnout and very enthusiastic support for an important cause."

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Participating in events like these - especially during Pride Month - is one of the ways that Burke honors Brendan, who was just 21 when he was killed in a car accident in 2010, a few months after publicly coming out as gay to the hockey world.

"Brendan was a big kid. I called him Moose," Burke said of his 6-foot-4 son, who was taller than both his father and older brother Patrick. "He was just a sweet kid. There wasn't a mean bone in his body."

Coming from a hockey family, Brendan - who was a goalie - always loved the sport. He talked with his father about maybe working in professional hockey someday, but Burke worried that his good-natured child didn't possess the right temperament. "I told him, 'You need to be really mean sometimes to work in pro sports, Brendan,'" Burke said. "And I'm not sure you have it.'"

Instead, after graduating from Xaverian Brothers High School - where it later broke his family members' hearts to discover the reason that Brendan didn't play on the varsity hockey team his senior year because he was afraid of his teammates finding out about his sexual orientation - he became the student manager for the Miami of Ohio men's hockey team. 

Brendan decided to come out to his family when he was a sophomore in college, waiting to tell his no-nonsense, old-school father - known for building hard-nosed teams based around pugnacity, truculence and belligerence - last.

"I think he was a little nervous because of my reputation and all," Burke said. "But I think he knew it wasn't going to be an issue. Like his brother Patrick said, 'It's Dad. Dad's not going to care.' It was a non-event. It truly was a non-event."

At the time, they were in Vancouver for the holidays. They had gone to dinner and got back late, with Burke - who is an early to bed, early to rise type of person - ready to call it a night. But Brendan wanted to talk, and said it couldn't wait until the morning.

"He said, 'Dad, I'm gay,'" Burke said. "And I said, 'Are you sure?' He said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'You've given us a million reasons to love you, Brendan. This doesn't change one of them.'"

Brendan came out publicly in November 2009, becoming one of the first people closely affiliated with the NHL to do so - and in the process, became a pioneer. After he died a few months later on Feb. 5, 2010, the Burkes met as a family. Brian sat down with his three oldest children the day after Brendan's funeral, and told them they had two choices.

"I said, 'We can sit by the side of the road and hang our heads and mope, or we can keep marching,'" Burke said. "I said, I'm marching, and so are all of you.'"

That eventually led to Patrick establishing the You Can Play Project in 2012, which works to ensure the safety and inclusion for all who participate in sports, including LGBTQ+ athletes, coaches and fans. They achieve that by creating a community of allies that is able to foster a true sense of belonging, and seek to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by developing a culture of respect.

"I think it's been instrumental in helping kids come out and stay in team sports," Burke said. "It really impacts on a small number of athletes, but I think the broader message is the important one, which is - if you can play, you can play. If you can make us better, you're welcome here."

The You Can Play Project has grown so much over the years since its founding in 2012, and it's one of the reasons that Burke feels optimistic about the strides that have been made to promote acceptance in the sport of hockey. Especially when he thinks back to his own blue-collar upbringing in Minnesota during the 1960s and 70s, and his own experience in locker rooms during his playing career.

"We've made tremendous progress in this area," Burke said. "I told Brendan that when he came out. I said, 'Brendan, your life as a young gay man is so much better than it would've been when I was in high school or college. I'm so impressed with the progress that we've made on all fronts, but we're nowhere close to acceptance and true diversity in society.

"Part of it is that this is not a door that you kick open. These are prejudices and hatred and ignorance that have built up over centuries. So these are mud walls that have to crumble. You can't kick in the door."

Events like the first-ever Joint Pride Game between the Penguins and the Sabres on April 17 help break down those barriers, with both organizations showing their support for the LGBTQ+ community through different initiatives to raise awareness and funds.

"It meant a lot to us," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "I know the league has been very supportive of inclusivity, and to be a part of the first joint initiative with two teams is an honor. I think there's a personal approach to it with respect to Burkie, and we all have so much respect for Burkie as a person and what he stands for. And so for all those reasons, from our standpoint, we were proud to be part of that initiative."

Before the puck dropped, a celebratory video featuring players from both teams aired both in the arena and on the national NBC broadcast, with all of them voicing their support with some powerful words. Bryan Rust said that the ability to use their platform was so important, and whether they reached one person or a thousand people, the goal is to just to help in any way they can.

"This is something bigger than hockey," the Penguins winger said. "Hockey is not the end all, be all. With things like this, I think we've got to come together. Whether we're teammates or not, we're all human beings and we're all fighting for the same thing."

And as the battle continues on, Burke's message is this:

"If you're a member of the LGBTQ+ community, you are welcome with the Pittsburgh Penguins. You're welcome to come to our games, you're welcome to play for our team, you're welcome to work on our staff. You are welcome."

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