In another monumental step for the NHL, the league officially announced Thursday a partnership with the You Can Play Project, whose mission is to end homophobia in sports.
The You Can Play Project is led by Patrick Burke, the son of the former Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke and brother of Brenden Burke. Brenden was part of the Miami University hockey program when he came out as a gay man. Not long after, he tragically died in a car crash. Patrick started the project in Brenden's honor a little more than a year ago.
The original launch of the campaign was wildly successful with multiple players from all across the league voicing their support. The message was simple: If you can play, you can play. Meaning, if you have the talent to help a team win, nothing else matters. Pro sports are about whom the best athletes are, nothing more.
"The NHL sets the standard for professional sports when it comes to LGBT outreach, and we are incredibly grateful for their help and support," said Patrick Burke, a scout for the Flyers. "We will work with League and NHLPA officials, teams and players to ensure that we create a more inclusive hockey community at all levels."
Burke added a little more via a tweet to underscore the importance of the project.
As a person, Brendan was unique. As an LGBT athlete/manager, his struggles were not. This is for him, and everyone struggling. #YouCanPlay— Patrick Burke (@BurkieYCP) April 11, 2013
Indeed, the NHL has been at the forefront of the LGBT acceptance movement and this is another step. Another massive step. Never before has a sports league shown such a big commitment to something that for so long has been taboo. None of the four major North American team sports has had an active player who was openly gay, though we know there have been gay players, guys who have come out after retiring. The aim is that players in the future feel free to be who they are and not feel persecuted for it.
"Our motto is 'Hockey Is For Everyone,' and our partnership with You Can Play certifies that position in a clear and unequivocal way," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "While we believe that our actions in the past have shown our support for the LGBT community, we are delighted to reaffirm through this joint venture with the NHL Players' Association that the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands."
"NHL players have supported the You Can Play Project since its inception, which we are pleased to formalize and expand upon with today's announcement," said NHLPA head Don Fehr. "The players believe our partnership with the NHL and You Can Play will foster an inclusive hockey environment from the grassroots level to the professional ranks."
Part of the parnership with the league will mean the You Can Play team will be present at the rookie symposiums, talking with the young players coming into the league. While I like to believe the vast majority of players growing up now and entering the league are accepting of a wide cross-section of people, it does nothing but help underscore that message. Hockey is for everyone.
"As NHL players, we all strive to contribute towards helping our teams achieve success on the ice. Any player who can help in those efforts should be welcomed as a teammate," said Ron Hainsey, Winnipeg Jets defenseman and NHLPA executive board member. "This partnership solidifies the message that the hockey community believes in fairness and equality for everyone."
The atmosphere has never been more accepting for a player to be openly gay in the NHL or American sports in general. This partnership will only further ensure that sports are seen as a tolerant domain, something it has lacked compared to other professional arenas.
I say well done, NHL.