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Jets join crusade against prejudice

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Patrick BURKE isn't out to change the sporting world. That was never his intent or that of his late brother Brendan.

But Burke, son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke and the man behind the "You can play" campaign targeting homophobia, would like athletes to think twice about some things they say to teammates in the locker-room.

He's enlisted two Winnipeg Jets -- Tanner Glass and Dustin Byfuglien -- to help spread his message. Glass and Byfuglien, along with Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks, are featured in the newest public-service announcement on the campaign's youcanplayproject.org website.

"It's our campaign to end homophobia in sports," Burke said this week in a phone interview. "We believe that the use of words like 'gay' or 'fag' are far too common in locker-rooms and it needs to stop. We think gay players are negatively affected by that and athletes should only be judged by what they bring to a team and not by their sexual orientation.

"Growing up, I was that athlete, I was the guy using those words. It isn't until someone on your team or someone in your family comes out that you realize and understand the impact. What we're trying to do is just let athletes know about this, even though most of them, I really believe, don't mean it in a homophobic sense. We call it casual homophobia... when they say, 'Don't be gay,' they mean, 'Don't be uncool.'

"We're trying to let people know that for a gay athlete or a closeted gay athlete sitting there, hearing you say those words, all they think in their head is, 'He won't support me.'"

Brendan Burke was gay and working to bring awareness to homophobia in sports when the car he was driving crashed in a snowstorm on an Indiana highway in Feburary 2010. The accident killed Brendan, 21, and his friend Mark Reedy, 18.

It was while writing a memorial piece for his brother on the website outsports.com that Patrick typed the words, 'If you can play, you can play,' which became the campaign's slogan.

The message is simple: Sexual orientation should not matter if an athlete can play.

"We say it all the time: We don't want to change the locker-room, we don't want to stop making fun of each other... that's part of the room," said Burke, a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers. "We just want to let everyone know there's a line and you have to treat your teammates with the type of respect that doesn't affect their play and their mental state.

"Really, all we're saying is, 'Stop using these words, treat your teammates with respect and go out and play.'"

Burke has been overwhelmed by the hockey world's willingness to help the campaign. He first wrote every NHL team explaining what he wanted to do and, almost instantly, offers to help started piling up from hockey types.

The message was first launched this winter in a public-service announcement on a nationally televised game on NBC and has now featured the likes of Glass and Byfuglien, Henrik Lundqvist, Dion Phaneuf, Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Corey Perry, Daniel Alfredsson, Rick Nash, Duncan Keith and many more.

The movement has grown so quickly other teams in other leagues are stepping up, too.

"I was on Twitter yesterday and it came across that the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL had made their own video and sent it in," Burke said. "We didn't call and ask; they just sat down, made a video and sent it to us. It's awesome.

"My brother didn't start this specific charity, but he was the one who really raised the issue in the hockey world. He was the first one to stand up and say, 'No, this isn't right. Hockey needs to change the way we're acting.' "

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2012 $sourceSection0

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