Gay guys in hockey

The hockey world is buzzing with the news that Brendan Burke – son of Brian Burke – is gay.

An extraordinary article by ESPN.com‘s John Buccigross broke the news yesterday, in a story called We love you, and this won’t change a thing, and now of course it’s everywhere.

But as the Sun’s Steve Simmons points out, there have always been gay guys in hockey.

The issue is that we’ve never known who any of them were before now. Rumours often abounded, but that’s all they ever were. No one ever took that first step, to declare himself gay in the testosterone-fueled world of big-league hockey.

That said, players have stepped forward on other difficult issues. Sheldon Kennedy, and later Theo Fleury, admitted to being sexually abused by a former coach. Fleury had previously publicly addressed substance abuse problems, as had others before him, like Derek Sanderson. Admitting to, and dealing with gambling, drugs, or disease – Phil Kessel’s testicular cancer, for example – takes courage and conviction.

And let’s take a moment to remember Herb Carnegie and Willie O’Ree, who broke the colour barrier for Black hockey players, and guys like Reggie Leach and George Armstrong, who carried the torch for Native players.

Let’s not forget to mention the women: Manon Rheaume stepped between the pipes for Tampa Bay to become the only woman player ever to play in an NHL exhibition game, and Hayley Wickenheiser became the first woman to join the roster of a professional men’s team.

Given all that, it’s perhaps surprising that it’s taken this long for someone in the pro hockey family to publicly declare himself gay. The fact that his dad is the notoriously pugnacious and bellicose Brian Burke adds to the poignancy.

Even more surprising is that according to Buccigross’s article Brian Burke invited Brendan to Toronto’s annual Pride Parade last year. Brendan accepted, and apparently the two attended together.

Burke, Sr. manages the most scrutinized team in hockey, the Toronto Maple Leafs. It says something that Brian Burke could attend Pride celebrations and not be picked up by the sports media.

Kudos to Brendan Burke for stepping forward, to Brian Burke for supporting his son, and to the scribes and fans who have applauded them.

Here’s hoping that acceptance leads to more gay guys in hockey feeling comfortable coming out. And that their family and friends and fans react as Brian Burke did:

…this takes guts, and I admire Brendan greatly, and happily march arm in arm with him on this.

…since he wishes to blaze this trail, I stand beside him with an axe!

I simply could not be more proud of Brendan than I am, and I love him as much as I admire him.”

Seems to me our great game, a game that’s all about heart, just got a little bit greater.

And as for the haters – rest assured, there will be a few – we’ll just sing them off the ice. We know how that tune goes:

“Na-na, hey-hey, goodbye.”

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