A day is coming in U.S. sports when gay athletes are comfortable with declaring their homosexuality to teammates. The ramifications of being, and dealing with, openly gay athletes have been speculated about for years. Even in our world sated with Tiger updates and TMZ, it is one of the most fascinating barriers yet to be cracked in our pro sports.
"No doubt, it's going to happen," said Nick Petraglia, director of hockey operations for top-ranked Miami (Ohio).
That such a declaration would come from southwest Ohio, from the world of college hockey is surprising only to those who don't understand what the RedHawks have been through. It was about a year ago during the sport's signature event, the Frozen Four, that student manager Brendan Burke came out to his buddies on the RedHawks.
|The RedHawks, wearing patches to honor the late Brendan Burke, are looking for the school's first title. (AP)|
"Our culture, the hockey culture, you use words without really knowing the impact of them," said Petraglia in his sixth year on the staff. "You just throw words out there. We loved him so much. It made us more conscientious of the words that we use. It made us more respectful of homosexuality."
It is believed that no one in major U.S. team sports has ever come out. Dartmouth lacrosse goalie Andrew Goldstein made news five years ago when he told teammates that he is gay.
But "Burkie" was one of them in "the room", the son of a powerful and macho hockey executive. Because he meshed so well in that hockey culture, Brendan might as well have been an athlete. As a student manager passing through Miami, he was hoping to go to law school. But he had found new friends on the Miami hockey team.
"It just made us stronger to be honest with you," Petraglia said. "None of us had really been around that. We've all probably known and had gay friends before but within a team structure, in the locker room he was very much a pioneer. Student manager is not a really a fair label for him. He was a teammate to the guys in the room. He was a member of our staff. That combination is so rare."
That will be part of Burke's legacy when the puck drops Thursday night in this year's Frozen Four in Detroit. Miami is back to defend a title that it feels it should have won last season. Of course you can't defend something you never had.
Miami's failure to capture the school's first national championship, in any sport, was less than a minute away from coming to an end last year in Washington D.C. With Burke behind the scenes as a video assistant breaking down film and Miami taking advantage of the scouting, the RedHawks led Boston University 3-1 with less than a minute to go in the championship game.
What happened next was one of the more heart-wrenching sports moments of 2009. Miami blew that two-goal lead and lost the game in overtime. There have been few more stricken locker rooms. This one was especially tough for a program that refers to itself as "The Brotherhood."
"We spent a lot of time before this season even started just making sure what happened last April wasn't a devastation," said coach Enrico Blasi, "other than the score."
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The RedHawks thought they knew devastation. They had no idea. Burke was there that night in D.C. He won't be Thursday when Miami faces off against Boston College in one national semifinal. Two months ago, in the prime of his life, Burke was killed in an auto accident along with a friend on an Indiana highway.
The coaching staff found out between periods of a victory over Lake Superior State in early February. The players were told after the game.
"He was supposed to be at the rink about four to help me watch some video," Petraglia recalled. "In four years he was never late. He was the type of kid who always had his phone on. If you would text Brendan Burke you would get an answer within five seconds."
Four o'clock turned to 4:30 which turned to five, which turned to 5:30. There was a sense of dread even as the RedHawks skated to that victory.
"When they heard the news, it was tears and devastation," Petraglia said.
There's that word again. But how do you compare the loss of a game to the loss of a friend? How do you play for Burkie when hockey seems so insignificant? The RedHawks will do it because there is a struggle in both.
Burkie felt the same disappointment as everyone in the room did last April. He high-fived them after the big wins. He was part of the struggle halfway through the season to get back to the Frozen Four.
Part of his legacy, as mentioned, is that it is OK to accept homosexuality in the last frontier -- the locker room.
Petraglia chooses to talk about Burke at length because the two became close. Brian Burke called Blasi when Brendan was a freshman, asking a favor. The staff was full but Blasi promised Burke that he'd find Brendan something.
Burkie became more than a student manager. He was adept at breaking down film and providing pre-scout information. He became close with the players. It was strange, or maybe inspirational, the day after he was killed the RedHawks beat Lake Superior State 10-4. It seemed like the guys Brendan was closest with were getting all the points.
"After dealing with something like that, you didn't expect them to even want to play the game," Petraglia said. "It just brought them together."
Two days after that game, the RedHawks were at Brendan's funeral, wearing their jerseys per the family's request. A double-overtime win against Michigan in the regional last week got them a little closer to their championship goal and a little further away the pain.
Wisconsin and BC are national powers this week in the Frozen Four. RIT is the college hockey version of Butler, an upstart playing for a national title in its fifth year in Division I. Miami figures it is owed one. There has to be a reward out there somewhere.
"We seem to think so," Petraglia said, "but nothing is guaranteed. It feels like it's a team of destiny right now. Hopefully, that's true."