Tough. Relentless. Truculent. Brian Burke has been all that and more in a multifaceted hockey career. But the gentler side of the Calgary Flames' president is all about his late son Brendan, who publicly acknowledged he was gay only to be killed in a car crash three months later. In honour of his son, Burke was happy to be named the marshal of Sunday's Gay Pride parade in Calgary. He spoke with Allan Maki.
Local organizers are expecting more than 50,000 people to take in the parade. Does that surprise you?
No. I've marched four times in Toronto's gay parade, so I know what this is about. The first I attended was with my son Brendan, who was gay, and we just watched. After we lost him in the car accident [in 2010] I marched the next year. Rick Mercer has marched with me; kids have marched with me; a number of players have marched with me. [Flames players] Mark Giordano and Sean Monahan marched with me last summer. I've gotten great support … My goal is that one day we won't need a parade. But for now, I'm glad we do. Keep in mind: If you're an average Calgarian and you're not a member of the LGBTQ community, this is your chance to say, 'This community is important. These people are important. They matter.' I think it's a big day.
How did Brendan tell you he was gay?
We were in Vancouver. I don't remember the date because to me it wasn't a big event. He had come out that week to his brother and two sisters. I came home from an event in Vancouver and it was late and he said, 'I need to talk to you.' And I said, 'What's up?' and he said, 'I'm gay.' I said, 'Oh. Are you sure? Some people go through a questioning phase.' He said he was, and I hugged him. I told him, 'It doesn't change anything, Brendan. You've given us a million reasons to love you and this doesn't change a thing.' Then I hugged him … and I looked into his eyes and said, 'You know what the best part is? I don't have to take anything back.' No homophobic comments in our house. No racial comments in our house. A lot of parents, when their child comes out, they want to do the right thing but they've got to rebuild some bridges.
But what about what goes on in the heat of a hockey game?
I don't think it's a judgment about a player's sexuality as much as it's habitual. A guy hits you from behind, what do you do? You get up and curse at him and you pick up the biggest rock you can find and throw it as hard as you can. So what's the worst insult we have? It's a homophobic slur; the multisyllabic slur that ends in 'r.' It's just what you say in that situation. It doesn't make it less hurtful. It doesn't make it acceptable. It was that way when I played too. I have no hesitation in being truthful; I said some things I wish I could take back … But I think we'd have a far worse problem if players were actually making that judgment and still saying it.
The You Can Play project co-started with your son Patrick, is it making a difference?
Basically, You Can Play says, 'If you're good enough to play, you can play on my team.'
It's a powerful message and I know it has saved lives. I know for a fact it has empowered kids to tell their parents they're gay because I get mail from these kids.
I got a wonderful letter from a dad in Ontario who said he was driving his son back to university and the son said, 'Pull over at this liquor store' – which the dad thought was odd because his son didn't drink. He pulled over and the son said, 'Dad, I'm gay.' And the dad said, 'I didn't know what to say. But if [being supportive] was good enough for Brian Burke, it is good enough for me.'
Michael Sam has insisted there are other gay players in football. What can be said about hockey?
We have gay players in the NHL. Statistically, we know that. It's not like this year will be the first time for a gay player. Obviously they're not comfortable in coming out. Jason Collins came out in the NBA but as a player near the end of his career. It's only a matter of time before a player comes out from a current roster in one of those sports and then you'll see numerous others. I think that athlete, when he does come out, will be amazed at the reception he gets, the acceptance he sees.
This interview has been edited and condensed.