Apologies to Gordie Howe, but we have our own Mr. Hockey, and his name is Patrick Burke. Ahead of an event that Patrick was keynoting over the weekend, he sat with our Leafs correspondent Andrew, for a very candid interview. If we never publish another post here, this one alone will have made it all worthwhile.
“I was prepared to interview Patrick Burke: memo pad, two pens (because you never know), a digital voice recorder and my phone’s voice recorder (again, just in case) and a pack of gum – basically a reporter’s toolkit.
He was in town to speak at the Outsport Toronto Scrum, and I was to meet him at a nearby Starbucks beforehand.
I get a text from him saying he would be there in a few minutes. I replied and asked him if he wanted coffee. He does: a grande black. I order it and head back to my table. Moments later he walks through the front door. Burke is impeccably dressed: nice suit, purple shirt and tie. “Do you need any cream, or…” I ask. “No, I take it black,” he says, “Straight whiskey, black coffee. Easy way to do it.”
I ask about when he got into town and how busy his day has been. He went to his dad’s, did CBC, CTV, and TSN, basically all the elite media in town, ahead of his afternoon speech. He is humble, unsure of whether his interviews went well. (They did). We talk about his speech, “It’s hard to do at times,” he says, “but also enjoyable to do, also rewarding.” He gave me a preview of his remarks – it will be about how Brendan helped him learn about LGBT issues, how people can make it more equitable for gay athletes and how the time has come to “kick the fucking door down” that separates gay athletes from being out in the locker room.
As a history major (I minored in it), Burke talks about bridging the gap between gay and straight athletes is like building the transcontinental railroad: you will not be successful building just from one end, you have to start at both and meet in the middle. But there is also the realization that there is still a lot of work to do. I ask about what happens when a gay slur is said in the locker room, and his reply typifies the environment:
“Typically very little because it…is accepted…at this point in the vernacular. I refer to it as casual homophobia. It’s not active homophobia, like where you hold a kid down and yell [slurs at him]. I’m not excusing it, I’m not saying it’s ok…but we have to understand that people using the words don’t necessarily mean it. So what we have to do is educate them that, hey, for the person in the corner who is gay, there is no other way to take that word. You might mean it to say ‘hey, you’re an asshole’, but for that person who’s got a secret that defines their life, there’s no other way for them to take it.”
But one thing Burke has noticed is that if you talk to teams and tell them what they say has real consequences, they are more than willing to change their methods, “for a lot of them it’s like a Holy Shit! moment…and they learn and they get better.” He brings up the South Park episode where ‘fag’ is used to refer to people who drive Harleys. Even in humour, it does little to help that 15-year-old kid having those words yelled at him every day. “It doesn’t mean something else…it does mean that. When high schoolers see [hockey players] using it, they think it’s okay too. And you have to just stop and say no, like use a different word. It’s not that hard, you can still insult people.”
He often quotes stats from the US that show how 64% of LGBT teens feel unsafe in their schools and that gay teens are three times as likely to commit suicide, even referencing Brendan’s experience and how nothing really went wrong, but for how every experience like Brendan’s there are three that are not. And there is no reason sport could not bridge the gap and give some LGBT teens a safe space to be in. But there is still the idea that gays cannot possibly like sport. The gay kid into drama, likes musicals, dresses well, is not every gay kid. I certainly was not. I was the ex-theatre kid who liked to read, watch hockey and quote The Simpsons. When I came out, so many friends were initially shocked because of one simple thing: I liked hockey. One friend was convinced I was putting her on.
Burke brings up an overlooked but salient point - hockey guys are very fashionable.
“Our players will go out and spend a couple grand on suits and everything like that and they’ll spend more time worrying about what they look like than most gay guys [would]…You ever go into a hockey locker room, there’s bottles of expensive hair gel and stuff, and guys are in the mirror, talking a half an hour to go out for their interviews… Because our guys live in big cities, all their wives have gay friends and they start to branch out a little bit, and that helps.”
And this is starting to branch out into not just individual players, but teams as well. There are more and more teams doing gay nights, like the Kings, Caps (December 3), Blue Jackets and even the AHL Toronto Marlies. This kind of acknowledgment shows how attitudes in sport are progressing, but there are still miles to go. In all sports there has been some progress, but the NHL seems to be the most progressive according to Burke:
“They’re trying to figure out the right way to get involved and one of the big fears..is they don’t want to hook in with the wrong group. If you hitch your wagon to one guy and it turns out he’s a bad person and your whole initiative goes down the drain…They’re being very careful about making sure it’s the right thing and they’re talking with us and the Burke family to find a way to get us all involved.”
But what if an NHL player was to come out tomorrow? This would be in contrast to most athletes who come out, either at the end of their career or soon into retirement. What would happen if a young, active, known player were to publicly announce he was gay?
“You need one guy to be the first [and] it’s a domino effect,” Burke says.
“Everyone’s afraid of being the first because all your worst case scenarios are still possible. And then you get the first guy who does it and he doesn’t get booed in every city he goes to and he doesn’t get cut and his teammates don’t give a shit and everyone else goes ‘Oh, okay’.
So the first guy has to take that little bit of a step off the cliff there, take a little bit of a risk, even though I don’t think it’s as big a risk as a lot of people do, but they have to take a little bit of that chance and…It would be a very courageous act, but once you see the first guy does it, you’ll see everyone else go ‘Oh well, so and so did it, so I might as well.’”
We talked stats. Say we take the widely used figure that 1 in 10 are gay. We round-up and say there are 700 players in a given NHL year, meaning up to 70 are gay. But the NHL is a very selective and difficult league, so general stats don’t fully apply (like saying you go to a musical theatre group and saying only 1 in 10 are gay). We take that 10% down to even 1%, that still means there are the potential for 7 players in any given NHL year to be gay. “Even if there was only one, he deserves the right to do it… If there is one guy in the closet who feels that he can’t come out, that’s too many,” he said.
That one guy would be widely supported, though. 80% of NHL players said they would support a gay teammate, according to a 2006 Sports Illustrated report. The number in opposition, Burke recalls, “was something like 8 and the rest was kind of ‘I don’t know’. The other leagues were all above 50%, but they were right around 50.” Which naturally raised the question, why? Why would one sports league be so head and shoulders above the rest in accepting a gay teammate? I had heard this statistic before but could not explain the reasoning. Patrick had an idea:
“We’re more international than most sports. So Canada, which is fairly progressive…Scandinavia, all legalize gay marriage or civil unions. You add up the Canadians and Scandinavians…” And Americans, through the college system of playing abroad, see that being gay is no big deal. The world still revolves if someone comes out. Burke even foresees an openly gay player within 5 years:
“I think it’s going to be sooner. Again, most people don’t agree with me…I think we’re probably 2 years away…[and] a lot of people are going to be surprised about how much of a non-issue it is… the media is going to make a huge deal of it, but his teammates are going to shrug their shoulders and go ‘OK.’”
But he makes sure to stress that young LGBT athletes are not necessarily going to be met with the same kind of reaction as a professional player. Those athletes are in very difficult situations and do not necessarily have the same supports in place, so it is a very different scenario (at least for now). And even in the NHL, there will not be a smooth ride to acceptance initially, but it can be overcome: “There will be screw ups. There will be guys who say choice instead of orientation…but I think our league is ready for this.”
We talk about how Brendan brought his dad, Leafs GM Brian Burke, to Toronto Pride and the promise Brian made that next year they would march together in it. Before they could, Brendan was lost in a car accident. But Brian came the next year, and the next and will continue to, honouring his son and the legacy Brendan has left for all.
By this point, the five minutes of his time we asked for turned into nearly 30 – I could’ve chatted all day. He’s one of the nicest guys I have ever met, totally down to earth, great conversationalist. In our remaining moments I start to go off script a little. I mention the shoes I specifically wore, Flyers orange.
Patrick is impressed with the peace flag. I tell him that I’m not a biggest Pittsburgh fan but am relatively fine with the Flyers. Burke quickly retorts that, “The guys from Puckbuddys hate the Flyers…I told them it’s probably because they look ugly in orange.” Good thing I like orange. And look good in it. Despite Craig and Doug’s open hostility towards the Flyers, Burke says, “I think the whole Puckbuddys blog network is going to be awesome… It’s going to be a cool project.” [Ed. Note: We hate every team that isn't the Washington Capitals].
He also brings up how there is a great gay sports bar in Boston. Not quite sure if I will ever make my acquaintance of it, but for those who may, “The Fritz” is the place to be. And we end there. Not for any reason but the need for him to get to the venue on time. I stop my recorder, gather my things and walk with him the few minutes back to Church Street. He takes a piece of gum of mine along the way (coffee breath is a no-no) and we chat about the city, about our youth and make notice of the amusing “Ho’s Team” salon we pass by.
We get to the venue in a few minutes, I bring him inside and all the important conference people are waiting for him. He is ceremoniously whisked away to the big time media people upstairs, and I take a seat in the foyer, still trying to make sense of what just transpired. Naturally I call my mother. By the time I regather myself, it’s time for his keynote speech. First thing to notice is the sparse 15 people at the beginning of the day has swelled to over 50, if not more. He can certainly fill a room.
Patrick spoke very candidly about Brendan, getting noticeably emotional in spots, talking about Brendan’s troubles in high school being a closeted gay athlete and quitting the team because of it, but also how he overcame his fears and how he came out to his family. He came out at Christmas time so that year the Burke’s referred to it as their “Big Gay Christmas.” The whole family took the news the way it was expected, with love and caring. He would apologize to his brother for some of the unintentionally homophobic comments he may have made, bringing them closer together. We hear how the Miami University hockey team and organization made just as small a deal of it as his family had, and how the coach was more worried Brendan was going to tell him he was injured or quitting the team more than him coming out.
But then he mentioned something important: a study showing how in the early 2000s there were gay athletes who would quit teams or purposefully injure themselves to get out of playing for fear of the locker room, but how in the 2008-2010 years there were no noted incidents.
Progress is indeed being made.
He ends with another historical analogy, this time about the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. The conditions were hard when Cortes came to the Americas and his people wanted to leave,but Cortes refused. The complaints grew louder. Food grew scarce, the native population was very unwelcoming (obviously) and the situation was grim. The people kept saying they could sail back, go back to civilization and put this behind them. Instead of giving in, Cortes ordered the boats be burned. With no boats, Cortes’ people would have to make it work.
This is what the Burke family wants to happen with LGBT and sport. The boats of fear, hesitation, shame and guilt have to be burned, so there is no going back to the ways of hidden shames and self-loathing.
There must only be progress and their straight allies “must stand beside them with an axe.”
There is a standing ovation, some Q&A then he’s off to meet the rest of his family at the Leafs game. He takes a few more questions outside the hall, I thank him again and shake his hand, and he heads down the street to go see his dad’s team play the Bruins. I then spent some time chatting with the only big name sports guy in town I see there, Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) of the National Post. We talk about the Burkes, the speech, LGBT sport, hockey news, the city, our mayor, and Vancouver. Bruce is a great guy and he later filed this column on the day.
My thoughts are all over the place, but there is one clear thing that rises above the din: Brendan’s legacy is in very good hands.”
Patrick Burke’s CTV National Affairs appearance from Friday: