Curtis McKenzie (Dallas Stars, Left Wing)
I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was playing for Miami of Ohio. It was a cold winter night in February. We were facing off against Lake Superior State. Brendan Burke, a member of our management staff, wasn’t around the rink during warmups. He was always there — I was confused.
Brendan loved hockey, like really, really loved hockey. He wouldn’t miss a Friday night game like this.
The weird part is, I remember so much from that night, but I don’t remember the score of the game. It didn’t really matter. After it finished, we huddled in the locker room as we usually did. But our coaches didn’t talk to us about the game.
Instead, they informed us that Brendan — our student manager, our friend, a member of our family — had passed away. He lost his life in a car accident shortly before the game. There was no real, natural response to news like that.
How could a kid 21 years old just suddenly die? I didn’t feel as invincible after that night.
As I was falling asleep, I just kept asking myself that question over and over again. I thought back to the first conversation I’d had with Brendan, on a bus ride back from a Miami football game early that year. We sat and talked for the the entire time — a whole hour of serious stuff, jokes and everything in between — for the whole hour-long duration of the ride. I took a lot from that conversation with him, but the one thing that struck me the most was how genuine Brendan was. He really cared about each and every one of the players he took care of as student-manager.
Without Brendan Burke, there’s no You Can Play Project.
James Van Riemsdyk (Toronto Maple Leafs, Left Wing)
Brendan’s brother, Patrick, approached me when I was in Philadelphia with the Flyers a couple of years back and told me about the You Can Play Project. He talked to me about its dedication to ensuring equality in hockey without regard to sexual orientation. It was an issue I knew of, but maybe not one I had thought about enough. Patrick asked me to be involved and it was an easy yes. Patrick has been phenomenal in terms of raising awareness.
I was incredibly proud that the NHL was the first league to be involved in the initiative. It’s awesome seeing the support from all the teams across the league and all the fans. To have a big league like ours behind the message, it helps so much. But it doesn’t stop there. I saw college teams, and then junior teams, replicating our efforts. At the end of the day, it makes you realize how much more we can do as players off the ice.
Scott Hartnell (Columbus Blue Jackets, Left Wing)
Like James, I was approached by Patrick and the Flyers a few years back when I was playing in Philadelphia. I was very flattered — and incredibly happy — that an issue like this was getting more publicity. I knew Brendan’s story well and had a lot of admiration for the Burke family.
Having been in the game for a while now, there was no better time for an initiative like this. Hockey, and the NHL in particular, is continuing to grow. More and more people — young and old — are being introduced to our game. To be able to tell them, “Look, it doesn’t matter who you are, or who you love, you’re welcome on our ice,” it’s a really great message.
For some, You Can Play may not seem like it has a great effect. But as a player, when you’re on the ice in warmup and you see all the jerseys and signs, you really get it. It doesn’t matter who you are, or who you love — you would feel welcome in an environment like that. I remember that that’s what Brendan wanted when he was with us at school in Miami. And to see how he lives on through this project, it’s very special to me.
Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty Images
When you see how this has changed people’s lives, that’s when it hits you. Fatima Ali’s photo with Ovi and Zetterberg really hammered home the point of the initiative.
Three people, from all very different walks of life came together in our nation’s capital because they just love hockey.
It made me realize, perhaps even more than before, that we as athletes have such a responsibility to bring issues like these to the forefront. It was such a simple gesture by two great players, but that moment went far beyond a lot of what we can all accomplish on the ice.
The goal here is to raise awareness and be proactive so one day we won’t even have projects like this. Acceptance and tolerance should be the norm, and I take a lot of pride in the fact that hockey is one of the leaders in this battle. When people reach out on social media and say things like, “Thank you so much for doing this, you’re my favorite player now!” that really brings a smile to my face. It’s great that we’re allowing casual fans an avenue to be interested in the sport — outside of what happens on the ice.
We can sort of act as that shield. If you’re going to be negative about this, you can come to us first. Our sport — our arenas and our games — is a safe haven for all those who love it. We owe a tremendous amount to Brendan and all the work his family has done.
In hockey, of course there is a certain culture, but I’ve yet to meet anyone with a firm stance against our project. Even still, I think the difference between being tolerant and being vocal about your tolerance is quite big. One of the many reflections of the project has been the way slurs and inappropriate remarks have made their way out of the game. Words are an incredibly powerful tool, and sometimes we forget how they can reflect on ourselves and others.
The You Can Play Project may just be few years old, but it has accomplished a lot. Brendan’s legacy has inspired people all across hockey, and we’re very thankful for his and the Burke family’s contributions. I think all of these teams showing that we stand for this and that we stand for the rights of everybody to be treated as an equal — it doesn’t matter who you are, we support you.
The past month was the Hockey is For Everyone Month in the NHL. It was a great gesture by our league, and one I hope we can continue to build on.
I encourage you all to visit http://www.youcanplayproject.org/ for more information on the initiative.
When the whole hockey community stands up together it’s a pretty strong message for everyone else in society.