NHL, NHLPA partnership with You Can Play a monumental step forward

In only 13 months, the You Can Play project has gone from fledgling concept to unstoppable cultural force. Its raison d’etre – the eradication of homophobia in all athletic endeavors – and the passion behind it has been embraced so swiftly and by so many people, YCP has become the go-to organization for anyone who wants to be educated about gay and lesbian issues in sport.

But the place where it all began for YCP was the hockey world. In some ways, you can say it truly began in the dressing room of the Miami University men’s hockey team in late 2009, when then-team manager Brendan Burke told players he was gay and received overwhelming support for who he was and his goal. But after Burke’s tragic death in a car accident in February of 2010, his brother Patrick and father Brian have worked wonders to honor his legacy – first by founding YCP and then by relentlessly promoting its message – and they’ve succeeded in large part because dozens of hockey players and thousands of hockey fans believe in their cause.

So how appropriate, then, that YCP’s first official partnership with a major professional sports league is with the NHL. The announcement, made Thursday afternoon by Patrick Burke, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr, will see YCP execute the elements of an inclusionary agenda at the on-and-off-ice levels. That agenda is the latest in a series of huge steps forward for YCP, which now is consulted virtually every time a homophobic incident involving a pro athlete arises.

“It’s a big day,” Patrick Burke said before the official announcement was made. “I’m very proud that the National Hockey League and NHL Players’ Association are the ones taking this step and breaking new ground. The big shift is that this is a professional sports league saying not that, ‘We tolerate you,’ not that, ‘We’ll deal with it if we need to,’ but that they’re inviting us in. It’s exciting.”

The partnership, which was signed as a legally binding document by the three parties this week, will see You Can Play (a) conduct seminars at the NHL’s annual rookie symposium to educate players on gay equality issues; and (b) integrate YCP’s message of respect for all into the league’s Behavioral Health Program by allowing players to confidentially seek counseling or education. As well, YCP will work with the league to create and broadcast public service announcements promoting equality.

For those unfamiliar with the evolution of the issue, it may be quite a shock to see equality and respect for the gay and lesbian community being championed by a hyper-masculine sport like hockey. But if you know how hockey takes care of its young, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. At the junior level, young men leave their families to live with billets – billets who quickly come to know and love them as their second sons. If any of those kids ever told their billet families they were gay, I’d bet dollars to donuts they’d be supported for who they were.

And anyway, as Fehr noted, it’s not as if hockey players or the hockey community is doing something altogether out of the ordinary. Equality for all is, well, something that should happen – and should have happened long ago.

“I’m certainly pleased with the way it’s developed and I think the attitude of the players speaks for itself,” Fehr said. “But you ought not to get extra credit for doing the right thing and that’s what we’re doing.”

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Veteran Boston Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference said Burke and his YCP team have made incredible inroads firstly because of the Burke family’s links to the hockey world, but also because of the strong brotherhood that exists among players.

“The good thing with Burkie is he’s one of us, a hockey guy,” Ference said. “When he started You Can Play and started talking to us, it really did make us talk about the issue amongst each other. And the resounding response has been, ‘Well, yeah, of course we’d support that cause.’ It’s a no-brainer. A teammate is a teammate. The feeling within the room is that players are brothers, we’re family, and we have to be there for each other.

“These are our friends, our teammates and there’s no reason not to fully support them. Guys would legitimately feel awful if they had a teammate who was going through tough times because they didn’t have an open environment to be themselves. What Patrick’s doing and what the guys are saying is that what we can do is make it so that the least of their worries is, ‘What are my teammates going to think?’ That should be the last thing on their minds when they’re trying to be themselves.”

The truth is, the work Burke, YCP and the NHL/NHLPA are doing may not always have a public payoff (in this case, in the form of a pro player coming out as gay). The bigger benefit is for the young boy or girl who might not feel they have to hide who they are because they see their on-ice idols and the hockey community at large accepting them.  

“When we have NHL players come out, people are going to talk about what a great victory this was, and what this partnership did,” Patrick Burke said. “And that’s true, it will be a great day when that happens. But there are kids who are going to be affected by this who will never make a headline or have a story written about them. There are kids who went to bed last night thinking, ‘I could never play in the NHL,’ and they’re going to go to bed tonight knowing the official policy of the NHL and its players is that you’re welcome in our league if you’re good enough.”

Hockey players are renowned for their heart and their character and never has that been more true than in the intent of and actions behind this partnership. All involved – owners and league brass, players and union officials, and the YCP team – are carving a path toward a better, bigger, more humane game and future generations of kids, gay or straight, will owe them a debt of gratitude.

Patrick Burke has often told me that one of his goals with You Can Play is to one day be so successful as to make the organization irrelevant. With this agreement, that day is much closer than most people would have predicted.

“This is another step towards us shutting down,” Burke said Thursday, “and I couldn’t be happier.”

Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.