For Patrick Burke (Canton, Mass.), it’s a question he knows he’s going to have to answer with every trip to the podium, every radio interview and every television appearance, but the roller coaster of emotions brought on by answering it has been, and may always be, unavoidable.
Brendan Burke (right) sips from the Stanley Cup with his father, Brian, in 2007. (photo courtesy of Patrick Burke)
Brendan Burke, Patrick’s younger brother and the video coordinator and student manager for the Miami-Ohio hockey team, was killed in a car crash Feb. 5, 2010. He was 21 years old. The crash came just months after a story by ESPN’s John Buccigross about Brendan revealing his homosexuality to his family put him in the national spotlight, because he and Patrick are the sons of Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke (Providence, R.I.).
Since the tragedy, Patrick and the rest of the Burke family have continued Brendan’s mission, advocating for tolerance and trying to curb homophobia in sports. Patrick has teamed up with GForce Sports, an all-gay hockey team from Denver, and gives regular speeches to young, impressionable audiences of prep school, high school and college students about the plight of gay athletes.
“Every time I speak it’s an emotional experience talking about Brendan,” Patrick Burke said. “Every time we talk I have to get into why I’m the one speaking instead of him. It’s always incredibly emotional to talk about how proud I am of Brendan, how much I miss him and how proud I am to try to carry on his legacy.”
Before his brother came out, Patrick Burke had never put much thought into the prevalence of homophobia in sports.
“I was that athlete using gay slurs casually and saying, ‘Oh, don’t be gay.’ I empathize because a lot of these kids don’t realize what they’re saying is harmful,” the 28-year-old said. “But for the gay kid on the other side of the room, you can try saying ‘that’s so gay’ isn’t meant in a homophobic way, but there’s no other way for him to take it.”
One of the first steps was to atone to Brendan for his own insensitivity about homosexuality.
“I always try to tell these kids that, at some point in your life, someone you know is going to come out,” he said. “The hardest conversation I had with Brendan was the time I had to apologize for all the times I used gay slurs.”
Patrick said the daunting experience of coming out has become easier in recent years for players at higher levels, as the number of stories of players getting kicked off teams and assaulted by teammates has dwindled. An admission of homosexuality still leads to verbal and physical torment for many in high school — and even younger — he says.
“It’s staggering if you sit down and look at it,” said Burke, currently enrolled at New England School of Law in Boston. “Sixty-four percent of gay teenagers don’t feel safe in their schools. A gay teenager is three to four times more likely to commit suicide than a straight teenager. That should stop any adult, any coach and any teacher in their tracks and make them realize that kids are dying.”
The Burke family (from left): Brendan, sisters Katie and Mairin, father Brian, brother Patrick, sisters Molly and Gracie and stepmother Jennifer. (photo courtesy of Patrick Burke)
If one NHL player, idolized by skating kids everywhere, were to come out, it would have a profound effect on every locker room. Burke believes that may happen sooner rather than later.
“I don’t think we’re far at all,” the Boston resident said. “Some people seem to disagree with me, but a 2006 Sports Illustrated story said 80 percent of the National Hockey League’s players surveyed would support an openly gay teammate. It’s not a small majority or a close call. It’s a vast majority of the National Hockey League that would support an openly gay teammate.”
Having traveled far and wide to spread the word and change the culture of sports, Patrick now has an even greater appreciation for how brave Brendan was.
“I think for me, at the time I didn’t realize just how big of a deal it was for (Brendan) to come out in that ESPN article,” Burke said of the 2009 story. “I thought it would be a bit of a story, but it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. The fact that he was the first and remains the only person that was really associated with the NHL who has been willing to come out publicly, and that he did it at age 20 as just a senior in college who didn’t have a secure career, shows the confidence he had and it’s just a great legacy.”
Patrick has picked up the torch that Brendan once carried. He doesn’t plan on putting it down any time soon.
“I think the goal is to have it so when players come out, it’s a complete non-story and it becomes a thing where we can have numerous openly-gay players in every sport and at every level,” he said. “But at the same time, in a lot of ways it’s like racism. We’ve got plenty of black players in every sport now, but there are portions of the country where a black athlete or a black person might not feel safe.
“We’re always going to have situations in some parts of the country where gay kids are being bullied or gay athletes don’t feel safe, but the Burke family is going to keep standing up for them every chance we get.”
Ron Hainsey (Bolton, Conn.) ranks first among all Hockey East alumni drafted in 2000 with 172 career NHL points.
Grier calls it a career
For veteran forward Mike Grier (Holliston, Mass.), it was Buffalo, Boston or bust. After not receiving contract offers from the Sabres — for whom he played 241 games over two stints — or the Bruins, the Bay State native decided to call it a career.
Grier announced his retirement last month after 15 years and 1,060 games in the NHL, capping an improbable career in which he became one the most respected players in the league. Drafted 219th overall by St. Louis in 1993 before a trade that sent him to Edmonton, Grier suited up for the Oilers, Capitals, Sabres and Sharks after quickly establishing himself as a reliable grinder and tough-as-nails forward.
The former Boston University star joined former NHLer Donald Brasher as the only two African-Americans to reach the 1,000-games played milestone last season. It’s an accomplishment Grier hopes will be an inspiration to younger generations of players.
“It shows I’ve had some longevity,” he said. “Hopefully I’m someone that some younger kids can look up to, and they can see that they can play this game and make a living at it for a long time.”
Longtime Blues forward Keith Tkachuk was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Chicago in December. One of just four American-born players ever to score 500 goals in the NHL, the Melrose, Mass., native was enshrined alongside Chris Chelios, Gary Suter, broadcaster Mike “Doc” Emrick and Flyers owner Ed Snider.
“I get pretty nervous looking at the guys next to me,” Tkachuk told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “I’m just blessed. I have a lot of people around me that helped me along the way.”
Boyle’s horror story
Rangers forward Brian Boyle (Hingham, Mass.) likely will have good memories from the Winter Classic, but the most prominent recollection he has of outdoor hockey growing up was a terrifying experience.
“I was like 4 or 5. I remember seeing my dad fall into a pond,” Boyle told NHL.com. “He was going to get a puck out by some brush and some trees. The ice was kind of thin and he fell in. I was so scared. I remember it now. I can picture it. My mother was horrified.”
Boyle’s father made it out all right, but he wasn’t the only family member to encounter such a scary scenario.
“I fell in halfway to my waist before,” Boyle said. “We were testing the ice, and me and my buddies decided to throw our skates on, test it that way … stupid.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
Jesse Connolly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org