Robison says that’s the same message the WHL shares with its players.
“Homophobia in our league is something we continue to monitor very closely,” says Robison. “We’re in review of our ‘Player’s First’ program right now so the timing is very good for this.”
He adds that Brian Burke is a personal friend and the commissioner applauds him and his family for this initiative and the support that NHL players have provided for it.
Most importantly, Robison highlights the increasing focus on creating a positive atmosphere for the league’s players on and off the ice.
“We’re fully committed to making a difference in the hockey culture of this country,” says Robison. “We really emphasize to the parents that the environment is positive and if there are any concerns raised we deal with them immediately.”
Perhaps the person most encouraged about the support coming from the WHL is “You Can Play” founder Patrick Burke. The Philadelphia Flyers’ scout and son of Toronto Maple Leaf’s general manager, Brian Burke, has been overwhelmed at the initial popularity of the program. He admits he and the project coordinators weren’t sure how people would respond.
“We had a plan in place – one was if everybody hated us, the other was if we had moderate success and the other was the highly optimistic one,” says Burke. “If everything went right it would be like this. It’s exceeded even our optimistic point of view.”
Not only are the Burke family members respected in the hockey community across North America, they are very close to the fight for gay equality in sports. Patrick is the brother of the late Brendan Burke, the openly gay hockey manager at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who was killed in a car crash in 2010. Prior to his tragic death that sent shockwaves around the league, Brendan talked candidly about his story.
“It shouldn’t have been me doing this,” says Patrick. “I do my best at it but on my best day I’m nowhere near as good at this as Brendan was or would have been.”
Patrick also says that what he’s doing in honour of his brother isn’t anything remarkable or special.
“Whenever it gets tough I just remember that Brendan did it first and if he can do it then I should be able to do it,” says Patrick. “This is what good brothers do. When your little brother has a fight you step in and help as best you can.”
It seems this is a fight Patrick Burke plans on being a part of for a long time. Since the launch of the project on March 4, he has been working to expand the project to other leagues. The ‘You Can Play’ advisory panel has representatives from the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer and women’s sports.
In coming months the project plans to produce a playbook for coaches, players, members of the news media and administrators at all age levels to create a non-threatening environment for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender athletes. Burke says he cannot stress enough the importance of education surrounding the issue.
“I take a lot of pride in how much educating of myself I’ve done,” he says. “It’s one of the few times you’ll hear me saying something nice about myself, but I’ve done my homework. Spreading the word online is important and so is educating yourself on the issues and on why we’re doing this.”
Both Robison and Burke will be looking at ways of incorporating the “You Can Play” project into the Western Hockey League for next year. Burke says the project is open to anyone who wants to get involved.
“Our website is set up to host fan videos so anyone who has a story to share or perspective they might want to share is welcome,” he says. “Or just straight fans who just want to say if you can play, you can play.”
Click here for more information about the project.