'We love you, this won't change a thing'
"I hope the day comes, and soon, when this is not a story." -- Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke
Well before you are born, your dad plays college hockey at Providence College and wears the "C" for Friars coach and Hockey Hall of Famer Lou Lamoriello. Your dad is then a member of the Calder Cup-winning Maine Mariners AHL team. He admits to having little skill, but contributes rough and tough qualities. You know, like pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. He's a man, baby.
Dad is also driven. And smart. He quickly retires from pro hockey. He knows he will make the NHL only with his brain and mental brawn. He earns a law degree from Harvard in 1981, then practices law in Boston for the next six years, representing professional hockey players before joining the Vancouver Canucks in 1987 as vice president and director of hockey operations. He has made the NHL. You are born a year later in Vancouver, British Columbia, in December 1988.
Dad is GM of the Hartford Whalers for a season as a 37-year-old before joining the NHL front office as senior vice president and director of hockey operations under commissioner Gary Bettman in September 1993, staying until 1998. Dad and Mom divorce in 1995, and, as a 9-year old, you move to Boston with Mom in 1997.
Dad then begins a six-year stint on the other side of the continent as president and general manager of the Vancouver Canucks. Meanwhile, you play hockey while growing up in the Boston area, and you are a goalie. You love Dominik Hasek and still believe he is the best of all time. Dad tries to see you play whenever he can. Goalie is a comfortable position for you on the ice, looking out and hiding behind a mask.
You eventually attend Xaverian Brothers High School, a prep school in Westwood, Mass., and make the competitive varsity hockey team as a senior, but choose not to play. You say it is because you don't think you would get enough playing time and you are upset at the coach. But you actually don't play because you don't think you can go another season without someone finding out your secret.
Your hockey career is over.
"Middle school and early high school is the first time I remember thinking that I could be gay, but I definitely tried to ignore it and didn't want to seriously consider it. It's pretty easy to try and convince yourself that it's not true, but it won't work, ever." -- Brendan Burke
You go on to attend Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, after your guidance counselor recommends the school. Miami is well known for being academically challenging and having one of the more visually idyllic campuses in the country. It doesn't disappoint. The brick buildings and brand-new hockey rink make the small town feel like what college should feel like. Like an old Hollywood movie set. Ohio is a friendly place with warm people who smile a lot and like to get together in groups and laugh. You fit right in. You've made a great decision.
You especially enjoy the Miami hockey program constructed by coach Enrico Blasi. You are involved as a student manager. Blasi demands his program and its culture be grounded in family. He calls it the Miami hockey brotherhood. The mission is to be the best one can be every day with a vision to become a champion in everything one does, on and off the ice. Miami's focus is on three things: relationships, daily behaviors and accountability. You watch and break down the pre-scout videos. You also keep most of the goalie statistics and prepare all the best clips for highlight videos.
While you're at Miami, Dad is now in Southern California as executive vice president and general manager for Anaheim and the Ducks win it all in 2007. You drink out of the Stanley Cup with Pops in the Anaheim dressing room. You love your father, you're proud of him, but you are hiding something from him that you will soon hide no more.
In 2008, Dad is chosen as general manager of the 2010 U.S. Olympic hockey team and named a recipient of the 2008 Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the United States. His résumé is relentless. Today, Dad runs the most profitable NHL team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and is, without question, one of hockey's more magnetic and interesting characters along with Don Cherry and Alex Ovechkin. Dad televises well.
So, imagine, this is your father. You? Probably destined to be "Burkie's boy" in Canada even if you resurrected George Harrison and John Lennon and reunited The Beatles. Imagine.
"Brendan is an incredible kid. He and I are incredibly close, even for brothers. In most families, the older brother overshadows the younger brother, but not ours. We went to the same high school and people there still refer to me as "Brendan's brother."
He's exceptionally smart, funny, motivated, successful and happy. He has an incredible way with people.
There's a genuine kindness about him that really resonates with people. It's a gift I'm very jealous of." -- Patrick Burke, Brendan's brother, now a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers
Your dad thinks through everything. Dad is big, confident and continuously radiates a persona that is rough, gruff, unrelenting and unapologetic. He has a cold, expressionless poker face straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie. Yet, he does this all with the most subtle of Irish smirks that says there is more behind this thick skin. And there is. He calls you "Moose" because you have always been a big kid. He cares very deeply about you and your happiness. You say he has always been there when you needed him. And he has a great sense of humor. Imagine that.
But on this night in 2007, you are petrified of your dad. Because you, Brendan Burke, at 19 years old, are about to tell your dad, Mr. Testosterone, that you are gay.
It is Dec. 30, 2007, and you are in Vancouver with Dad for the holidays to break the news. His new family lives in Vancouver, and his Ducks are in town. You go to the Canucks-Ducks game, and, obviously, Dad is pretty emphatic about wanting to beat Vancouver, his former employer. You root like hell for the Ducks to win so he is in a good mood. But the Ducks lose 2-1. Of course, Daniel Sedin scores a goal against Anaheim, and his brother Henrik adds two assists to help beat Dad, the man who traded for the twins' draft rights in 1999 while he was running the Canucks.
You almost don't tell your dad and stepmom as a result of the loss. But you are flying back to Boston the next morning and you want to tell them in person. You feel as if you are going to throw up as you pace the hallways of their condominium. Just as your stepmom is about to go to bed, your younger sister, Molly, grabs you by the wrist and directs you where to go and gives you a look that says, "You can do it. Get it done now. I'm here for you."
Just a week before, your older sister, Katie, is the first family member you tell. You had targeted telling your family at Thanksgiving but got salmonella and spent the entire week in the hospital. So you push back your announcement to Christmas.
You are driving home from a family event in Marlboro, Mass., when you decide you want to say it during the car ride. Finally, after a 45-minute ride, you pass the city limits sign of Boston and you know you have to tell Katie. It is incredibly difficult, but your sister is very supportive. Of course she is, you tell yourself, she's Katie. That same night, you tell Molly and your mom. Everyone is great. Mom tells you she isn't surprised and had expected it from the time you were a little kid. Moms.
You tell your brother, Patrick, a day or two later. Patrick turns off the car blaring "The Hold Steady" CD, and you tell him as you are walking out to the car to bring in bags. Patrick, like Dad, never one to be fazed, says something along the lines of, "I love you. This doesn't change anything. Now pick up that suitcase and bring it inside."
But, now, telling your secret to Dad is another story. Molly's reassuring hand guides you to the couch for the moment of truth. It's time to tell Dad, a most public example of hockey machismo, that you are gay.
Finally, you say it. Awkwardly. You basically stumble along trying not to make it a big deal before just blurting out, "And I love you guys and wanted to tell you that I'm gay."
There is a brief silence.
Dad is surprised when you tell him that you are gay. He never suspected at all.
Your stepmom speaks first: "OK, Brendan, that's OK." And gives you a reassuring smile. Then your dad says, "Of course, we still love you. This won't change a thing."
Your dad and stepmom both get up and hug you and say they love you. You and your dad then sit there alone for about 15 more minutes watching hockey. Your heart rate is still at a snow-shoveling level. You then hug Dad again, and you go to bed.
But now, questions arise:
1. What about Dad's reaction the next day and beyond?
2. How will Miami react to a young, gay man working on the hockey team?
3. Can an openly gay man play or work for a hockey team?
"I had a million good reasons to love and admire Brendan. This news didn't alter any of them.
I would prefer Brendan hadn't decided to discuss this issue in this very public manner. There will be a great deal of reaction, and I fear a large portion will be negative. But this takes guts, and I admire Brendan greatly, and happily march arm in arm with him on this.
There are gay men in professional hockey. We would be fools to think otherwise. And it's sad that they feel the need to conceal this. I understand why they do so, however.
Can a gay man advance in professional hockey? He can if he works for the Toronto Maple Leafs! Or for Miami University Hockey. God bless Rico Blasi! And I am certain these two organizations are not alone here.
I wish this burden would fall on someone else's shoulders, not Brendan's. Pioneers are often misunderstood and mistrusted. But 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." -- Brian Burke
The real reason you choose not to play your senior year is because the atmosphere in the locker room gets progressively harder to deal with as you get older. Homophobic slurs become as commonplace as rolls of hockey tape. Pressure to hook up with girls gets more intense. You are really upset for a couple of months. Your mom later tells you she thought you were depressed. Back then, she keeps asking you if something is wrong, but you don't want to talk about it with anyone.
You say gay slurs have a direct impact on gay people in the area where they are said. You sincerely believe the majority of people who use gay slurs don't mean them to be offensive; they just don't realize the words' meaning and don't think there might be a gay person sitting right next to them. Questions 2 and 3 cause you some concern.
Miami, the No. 1-ranked team in college hockey right now, refers to itself as "The Brotherhood," and Coach Blasi means it when he says it. You say the players on Miami hockey teams are truly unlike most hockey players you've met. It's a group of genuine, intelligent, good guys. They don't have to, but they make you feel like a part of the team. Their families treat you as if you are one of their sons.
As you start to become better friends with the players and coaches, it becomes more difficult to hide your true sexuality. You are developing genuine friendships with many, and it feels like a huge part of it is missing because you aren't being honest with them. You feel, in some ways, as if you are disrespecting the Brotherhood philosophy Miami is based on.
The RedHawks take you with them to the NCAA regional tournament in Minnesota this past March, where they beat Minnesota-Duluth and Denver to advance to the Frozen Four for the first time in history.
As far as amazing life experiences go, being at the Frozen Four in Washington, D.C., is right up there with being in the locker room after the Ducks won the Cup. In between the first round and the Frozen Four, you tell one of the Miami players you are gay. Another player figures it out on the morning of the national championship game, and you have to pull him aside and tell him not to tell anyone before the game. You don't want it to be a distraction. You ask him to wait 12 hours after the game; then he can tell whomever he wants.
After the heartbreaking overtime loss to Boston University, and mainly by word of mouth, your news gets around to the whole team. There isn't a big emotional sit-down talk, although you do speak with some of the guys personally. The general response is "OK, Burkie's gay. Who cares? Pass the beer nuts."
About a week later, you approach your boss, the director of hockey operations for Miami, Nick Petraglia, and tell him. Then, a few days later, you tell Coach Blasi. You are pretty sure one of the players told them both in advance to give them a heads-up, but neither cares, and both are incredibly supportive.
Blasi says that having you as part of Miami's program is a blessing and everyone is much more aware of what they say and how they say it. He says he is as guilty as anyone and everyone needs to be reminded that respect is not a label but something people earn by the way they live their life. Coach Blasi says you are a great student and an even better person. You say Coach Blasi is a great coach and an even better person.
"Brendan is a great guy, personable and caring. As student manager, he is involved in a lot of things for us -- video, stats and community service, to name a few of his duties.
To my knowledge, there has been nothing negative [since he came out to us]. I think it goes along the lines that Brendan is part of our family. Everyone respects Brendan, and that's all that really matters.
The players are awesome. They are very sensitive to language and how we talk in the locker room. Again, it goes back to our culture and working on relationships and behaviors.
[As far as whether a player could come out and be able to function like a normal college player], that's a tough one and I don't want to speak for any other program. As far as Miami is concerned, we are about the person. I believe we would be accepting and honestly not even think twice about it.
I think having Brendan as part of our program has been a blessing. We are much more aware of what you say and how we say it. I am guilty as anyone. We need to be reminded that respect is not a label, but something you earn by the way you live your life." -- Miami University hockey coach Enrico Blasi
The attitude across the team is pretty much the same: "Who cares?" or "I don't understand why this is even an issue." Players you don't even expect to be supportive are. You say it is proof this kind of thing can happen in other places, too. You wish you could say that gay slurs have been banished from the Miami dressing room. It hasn't happened yet, although serious progress has been made and one player in particular has made it a personal crusade.
But now that you are "out," can you successfully pursue a job in hockey, specifically in the NHL, if that is a wish?
You are applying to law schools right now. Hockey management and politics are two things you care about the most, and a law degree is required for both, so it leaves the door open for either. You say you would be lying if you said you don't think sexual orientation affects a job in pro hockey. You believe it would make some things more difficult. There are going to be people who aren't comfortable knowing they are working with a gay person.
"He's incredibly brave. He went back to our all-boys high school and gave a speech about the struggles gay teenagers go through and got a standing ovation from 200 kids who spend half their time insulting anyone different than them.
In so many ways, I look up to him for who he is and what he does.
Obviously, there are gay players in hockey right now, just no openly gay ones. And there are gay people in management, whether they're scouts or front-office people or coaches. We just don't have any openly gay ones right now. I think it will be a challenge for the first person that comes out, because they'll be putting themselves under a microscope.
The scary thing for me is that it might be Brendan, if he chooses to go into hockey. I don't think it's fair the face of homosexuality in hockey should be a 20-year-old college kid, but Brendan is more than willing to be the guy, which awes me. I think it's a matter of when, not if, players and management start coming out." -- Patrick Burke
At this point, you are still undecided about your career options. Although you think there definitely would be challenges to being openly gay and working in hockey, you also think hockey is ready for it. There has been a lot of discussion about when a current player will come out. You've always viewed most hockey fans as being very well educated and accepting of diversity. You say fans are much more focused on the on-ice product than on the sexual orientation of players or management, and you say hockey is too good to be dragged down by this.
You believe that if an NHL player came out today, he would face a unique set of challenges but would generally be supported. He might face more verbal abuse from opposing fans, but you believe the overwhelming sentiment would be, "If he can play hockey, who cares?" That's the perspective you've encountered at Miami. You say a good way to start would be for ex-NHL players who are gay to be more vocal and talk about their experiences and challenges.
Whatever happens in your life, whatever career path you choose, you know Dad is in your corner. His long shadow of a hockey résumé that once looked like a crutch might now prove to be just the thing you and others need -- a powerful and eloquent voice shouting from the mountaintops.
This is far and away more than what you personally expected from your hockey-famous Dad as you prepared coming out to him. When people ask you about your dad's reaction to your Vancouver sit-down, you initially say, "He's been great, but I don't think we'll see him at any gay pride parades any time soon. But he has been really supportive."
So, you are startled this past summer when you get a call from Dad saying, "Hey, Toronto Pride is this weekend, you should fly up." So, sure enough, you fly up, and you and Dad go to the Toronto Pride Parade together.
If someone had told you before coming out that your dad, Brian Burke, would be attending a gay pride parade with you, you wouldn't have believed it. You never suspected Dad would disown you or anything like that, but the way he has handled it and the way he talks about it now has, honestly, really moved you. He was a little awkward about it at first. Today, he doesn't even think twice about it.
You want it known that he has been 100 percent supportive of you. It's important to you that people know that even the president and GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who has a less than sunny public personality, has a gay son and is a firm supporter of gay rights.
"Imagine if I was in the opposite situation, with a family that wouldn't accept me, working for a sports team where I knew I couldn't come out because I'd be fired or ostracized. People in that situation deserve to know that they can feel safe, that sports isn't all homophobic and that there are plenty of people in sports who accept people for who they are." -- Brendan Burke
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or crosschecks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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