Hockey Biggie Publicly Supports Son’s Coming Out

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Nov 25, 2009

The son of former pro hockey player and current Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has come out publicly as gay--and Burke has come out just as publicly in support of his son.

ESPN sports columnist John Buccigross, in a Nov. 25 story, tells Brendan Burke's story in a dramatic second-person narration, asking the reader to put himself into Brendan Burke's shoes and describing the young man's life step by step, along with the successes and setbacks of the teams for which his father works. "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," the columnist writes. "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," Buccigross continues. "Meanwhile, you play hockey while growing up in the Boston area, and you are a goalie.... 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."

Adds Buccigross, "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."

Buccigross intersperses the narration, which details the family drama of Brendan coming out to his father, with comments from Brendan Burke, who is quoted as remarking, "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," the elder Burke continues. "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," observes Brian Burke. "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.

"I wish this burden would fall on someone else's shoulders, not Brendan's," the young man's father adds. "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."

The elder Burke has expressed the hope that "the day comes, and soon, when this is not a story," but for some players, coaches, and pundits that day is already here. The younger Burke works as student manager for the Miami Redhawks; when he came out to the team, he found nothing but support from the players and from coach Enrico Blasi, who was quoted as saying, "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," Blasi added. "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."

Commenting on the story, and on Buccigross' column, a Nov. 24 posting at sports blog Out of Left Field embraced the younger Burke's experience as more typical now that in years past. "What sort of got buried is that the Miami Redhawks, a college hockey team full of 18- to 22-year-old jocks, accepted Brendan Burke as he is," the posting read. "Perhaps the sports world is more forward-thinking than behind-the-curve sportswriters would have you believe.

"That's the real story, far as this high-tech redneck is concerned," the blog posting continues. "Ask yourself if you can see that happening with a major junior franchise team. Perhaps it has already. We don't know, since all the sports columnists who are now compelled to write, 'There are gays in sport, gays in hockey, gays in society. I know of many who have served in front offices and scouting capacities. They shouldn't have to hide, now or ever,' have seldom if ever bothered to write that column on a day when it was not convenient or current."

The blog went on to note, "True, you might not have read that 10, 15, 20 years ago in a daily newspaper, so it does represent progress to a limited extent. Don't miss the point. You should resist putting people in tinier and tinier boxes where if they believe in A (fighting in hockey = good), then they must believe B (gay people = not good).... You should never assume a singularity to anyone's personality, even though we're all guilty of it sometimes."

Though the world of professional sports is reputed to be extremely homophobic, some cracks in that facade have begun to appear. NFL players Brendon Ayanbadejo, linebacker with the Baltimore Ravens, and New Orleans Saints' defensive captain Scott Fujita both spoke out in the media on behalf of same-sex families seeking marital rights.

Ayanbadejo, in an April 23 op-ed published at the Huffington Post, wrote, "If Britney Spears can party it up in Vegas with one of her boys and go get married on a whim and annul her marriage the next day, why can't a loving same sex couple tie the knot? How could our society grant more rights to a heterosexual one night stand wedding in Vegas than a gay couple that has been together for 3, 5, 10 years of true love?"

Noted the player, "The divorce rate in America is currently 50%. I am willing to bet that same sex marriages have a higher success rate than heterosexual marriages.... I think we will look back in 10, 20, 30 years and be amazed that gays and lesbians did not have the same rights as every one else."

Fujita, referring to Ayanbadejo's comments, was quoted in a Sept. 29 article at The Nation as saying, "I hope he's right in his prediction, and I hope even more that it doesn't take that long. People could look at this issue without blinders on... the blinders imposed by their church, their parents, their friends or, in our case, their coaches and locker rooms."

Added Fujita, "I wish they would realize that it's not a religion issue. It's not a government issue. It's not even a gay/straight issue or a question of your manhood. It's a human issue. And until more people see that, we're stuck arguing with people who don't have an argument."

An Oct. 18 EDGE article took note of Ayanbadejo's comments, and examined the culture of pro football to offer an explanation for its seemingly deep-rooted homophobic tendencies. The article also noted the gradual emergence of openly gay athletes such as Matthew Mitcham, though for the time being it remains more often the case that gay athletes stay in the closet until after they retire from their sports careers.

That, however, may--slowly, but inexorably--already be changing. In a decade or so, the EDGE article suggested, out gay athletes--and publicly gay-supportive athletes--may be the norm.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


  • , 2009-11-25 19:48:26

    The picture is Rico Blasi, Miami’s head coach, not Brendan Burke.

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