THE National Hockey League announced a formal partnership Thursday with You Can Play, an advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring equality and respect for all athletes regardless of sexual orientation.
The agreement is the first of its kind in the four major North American male professional team sports, none of which has ever seen an active player come out as gay.
"I have no doubt that we will be first," Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke told USA Today Sports. "Our league is ready for this and our players are ready for this. The culture of the sport, when it comes to LGBT issues, is so far ahead of the other sports that I have no doubt that there will be openly gay athletes in the NHL in the near future."
Burke, the son of longtime NHL executive Brian Burke, is co-founder of the year-old You Can Play, which has already been working with the NHL on public service announcements that say players should be judged solely on their abilities, never their sexual orientations.
The NHL and NHL Players Association, which were unable to reach a deal that would have started the current season on time, came together to agree to this partnership, which is meant to secure a more inclusive community, devoid of casual homophobic language in locker rooms and on the ice, at all levels of hockey.
"Our motto is 'Hockey Is For Everyone,' and our partnership with You Can Play certifies that position in a clear and unequivocal way," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "While we believe that our actions in the past have shown our support for the LGBT community, we are delighted to reaffirm through this joint venture with the NHL Players' Association that the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands."
The league said its official partnership with You Can Play includes a significant commitment to education and training for teams, players, media and fans, plus the continued production and broadcast of public service announcements.
"I just think this comes down to doing the right thing," NHL Players Executive Director Donald Fehr told USA Today Sports. He said the joint agreement simply re-affirms the idea that NHL players should only be evaluated by what they do on the ice. "Other matters aren't relevant for that purpose," Fehr said.
He doesn't take any particular pride in the NHL being first with this kind of formal agreement: "I don't think you should be ranking people in terms of first or second. I'm just pleased that we were able to do it and that we have the support of the players."
Fehr said the resolution expands the commitment to providing an inclusive work environment: "And if there are matters which arise, you can have some education. And if there are some individuals who need assistance you have an organization that is in a position to provide it."
The agreement specifies that You Can Play will conduct seminars at the NHL's rookie symposium on LGBT issues and make its resources and personnel available to teams as desired.
The league and the players association will also work to integrate You Can Play principles into the NHL's Behavioral Health Program, which would let players seek counseling on matters of sexual orientation, on a confidential basis.
"This partnership solidifies the message that the hockey community believes in fairness and equality for everyone," Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey said in a statement.
Players who have appeared in public service announcements include Rick Nash and Brian Boyle of the New York Rangers and Scott Hartnell of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Hainsey, a member of the NHLPA executive board, said: "As NHL players, we all strive to contribute towards helping our teams achieve success on the ice. Any player who can help in those efforts should be welcomed as a teammate."
Patrick Burke's brother Brendan came out as gay in 2009 when he was manager of the Miami (Ohio) men's hockey team. He died in a car accident in Indiana in 2010. Patrick Burke later wrote a tribute to his brother for the leading gay sports web site OutSports.com, which included the phrase: "If you can play, you can play."
-- USA Today