The demeanour of the players tells much more about their feelings with regards to gay athletes than their words.
Players on the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs were clearly uncomfortable yesterday when they were asked about how a fellow athlete would be accepted if he were openly gay. The questions came in the wake of an espn.com story in which Brendan Burke, a student manager with the Miami (Ohio) University hockey team and the son of Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke, revealed that he is gay.
All of the players said it would not be a problem in today's NHL for someone on their team to publicly declare his sexual orientation. They said they did not think a gay player would face any harassment from his teammates, although the topic was not one they were willing to discuss for long.
"What kind of question is that?" said Martin St. Louis of the Lightning. "At this point in time in our society it has to be accepted. You can't judge a person on his sexual orientation."
Steve Stamkos, St. Louis' much younger teammate, blushed when the subject was raised a few hours before the Lightning's game with the Maple Leafs.
"You've got to support your family," Stamkos, 19, said of the Burkes. "It's his personal business."
Like St. Louis, Stamkos thought a gay athlete would not have any problems fitting in with an NHL team.
"Yeah, why not?" he said. "If you want to come out, then good for you. It's your preference."
However, Leafs coach Ron Wilson, a close friend of the Burkes, said it is a much more complicated matter. He acknowledged there is still a lingering bias against homosexuals in all of the major professional sports leagues, not just the NHL.
"We do have an athletic culture," Wilson said. "It's not a hockey culture. It's the same in baseball, basketball or football.
"For Brendan, it's a very brave thing that he's done, to step out like that and think about his future. Hopefully he can be a pioneer in the right way and a very positive way. He's certainly got the support of Brian [Burke]and everybody in our organization."
All of those questioned were sincere in saying they would, like the Leafs GM, support any family member who revealed they were gay.
"Any father would support their kid," Leafs forward Jason Blake said. "It's one of those things in life. I think you guys [the media]are making it a bigger issue than it is. I don't know why we're even talking about it."
The same sentiment was raised by readers on globesports.com who were also reacting to the younger Burke's decision to make public that he is gay. It attracted a lot of comments, ranging from the supportive to the abusive, including this eloquent response from a gay woman to the question of why this is still an issue:
"Inspirational stories about people like Burke's son (and even Burke himself) give young people courage to be themselves and the hope that the reactions they get when they come out will be as positive.
"Until it's as easy to tell your parents/friends/schoolmates/coach that you have a girlfriend as it is a boyfriend then this IS news. Until you've been in this situation, don't belittle what both father and son have accomplished so far and have yet to go through."