SAN JOSE The tragic story of Brendan Burke, the son of Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, is familiar to most of the hockey world.
Tommy Wingels is more familiar than most. The Sharks rookie forward was a close friend of Burkes, as he was a member of the Miami University Ohio hockey team of which Burke was the video coordinator and team manager before he was killed in an automobile accident on Feb. 5, 2010.
Just prior to his passing, Burke revealed to the team and to the public that he was gay. Burkes family is carrying on his legacy to make sports locker rooms a more accepting place for gay athletes with the You Can Play project.
The organizations mission statement claims that it is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.
Wingels is on the advisory board.
I think the biggest thing with this project is awareness, Wingels said. The cool part about it is its very easy to be a part of. Whether youre on the board like myself, or youre just a guy in the locker room, its about watching what you say and creating an environment that is safe for everyone. Its easy to be a part of because you really only need to worry about yourself. If every person is conscious, it really makes it a lot easier.
A number of NHL players who have joined up with the cause. A PSA featuring players like Rick Nash, Henrik Lundqvist, Claude Giroux, Daniel Alfredsson and Duncan Keith ran during NBCs broadcast of the Rangers-Bruins game on Sunday and can been seen below.
Wingels is excited for what the program can accomplish.
I really think the sky is the limit. This is really the first program Ive been aware of in regards to the National Hockey League, and its a good step, he said. Like I said, its all about awareness. I think this is a great start. I think the reception amongst players around the league you see some big name guys and Stanley Cup winners who are backing this. It just shows that there is acceptance and Im excited to see its continuance throughout the league.
Wingels remembers when Brendan revealed his secret to the team, as well as the reaction or lack thereof from his teammates.
You know, there wasnt a reaction. I think thats what was great. No one cared. He was Brendan to all of us. His sexual orientation had no meaning to us, Wingels said. It didnt change the way he acted around us, and none of us changed the way we acted around him. I think that it was the first case of someone doing it, and I think in the next coming years, and hopefully even sooner, someone else will be able to as well.
It's clear that the Burke family thinks highly of Wingels, and not just for his ability on the ice. Patrick, Brendan's older brother and a current scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, told CSNCalifornia.com:
Tommy was one of Brendans closest friends at Miami and weve all been fortunate enough to get to know him the past few years. The one thing we wanted from all our participating athletes was character, and Tommy is one of the best, most genuine people Ive ever met. In addition to serving on the board, Tommy and his former teammate Phoenix Coyotes forward Andy Miele were the founding donors of our project. I couldnt imagine a better representative for the Sharks, for Miami University and for the game of hockey than Tommy.